The author reflects upon visiting the northern English town from which his wife's family hail and the ironies of his father-in-law's relationship with it.
My wife’s whole family comes from Whitehaven, a small, sleepy port city on the northernmost reach of the west coast of England. Its fortune was founded in the Georgian era, like those of Liverpool and Bristol to the south, on the new transatlantic trade in tobacco, cotton, sugar, rum and slaves but its hay-day was Victorian. From the second half 19th century through the first half of the 20th, it was among the world’s largest producers of both iron ore and coal and was ringed round by steel mills. My wife, Auriel, spent her teenage years there in the early 1980s loitering in churchyards with Lawrentian intent, dressed in Edwardian cast-offs gleaned from local thrift stores but it is her father, Alan, with whom I’ve associated the place ever since my first visit there, just over a quarter of a century ago, on the occasion of his mother's funeral, from which he excused himself on account of “very important business” in Southeast Asia. This subsequently turned out to be running a commercial laundry service for tourists and expats in Bangkok, out of which he was ultimately bilked by his business partner, an artificially curvaceous and wide-eyed Thai lady about the same age as his middle daughter at that time and hence some twenty-three years his junior.
On that mournful first visit, Whitehaven struck me as the northern English town that time forgot, a place where women wearing false-eyelashes pushed babies sporting frilled bonnets in black hooded perambulators that rattled along over cobblestones on white-walled, chrome-hubbed wheels. Every fourth or fifth shop front was empty and aged miners with sunken faces, under flat caps and inside dark wool overcoats, stared out of dim pub windows with one hand round a pint-glass half full of Newcastle Brown Ale and the other pinching a Players Navy Cut. At one point, Auriel took me down to walk on the pier built of heavily eroded, local brown sandstone, which was still embedded with rusted, narrow gauge railway tracks for carrying the mine wagons of iron ore and coal. Ten tons a day had been loaded there for over a hundred and fifty years up until the 1970s. The tide was out at the time and the bottom of the harbor was visible, all lumps of coal worn round and smooth by the surf, coated in stinking, grey-green silt, broken up by spumy puddles full of dead crabs and sea slugs.
Auriel told me at the time that beneath us, for half a mile out into the choppy, dark green sea stretched the flooded caverns of the now abandoned Wellington Pit, site of the largest mining disaster in British history, in which more than 150 miners had died, and in which her maternal great grandfather kept going back down to rescue one after another of his co-workers, for which he was awarded a medal by one of the lesser members of the British royal family. In a subsequent pit disaster, Alan and his young school friends had passed an afternoon watching bodies being brought out, once again one after another. The only boats in the harbor over the flooded labyrinth that day were decommissioned fishing vessels, lying tilted in the silt, their nets and lines tangled in heaps on their decks, peeling paint and oozing rust. There was not another soul to be seen and Great Black Backed Gulls soared overhead or sat mewing at us from sea-corroded, cast iron lamp posts in the soft, cold rain.
A dozen years passed before I went back to Whitehaven. The visit was, once again, occasioned by the passing of one of Alan's, my now father-in-law, female significant others. This time it was his partner for the past few years who had met her end. She'd been the only woman who’d put up with him for any length of time since his divorce from my mother-in-law, Brenda, twenty years earlier. Her name was Doreen and he was then living in her house, of which he’d been granted usufruct for a year following her demise, having sold the last house he’d ever own in order to fund his spendthrift, hard-drinking lifestyle. At my wedding a couple of years earlier, Doreen, a sparrow-like lady, had teetered up to me on blue pastel heels, given me a light slap on the behind and declared tipsily, “You’re not half bad looking, Professor, I’ll grant you that...but I suspect you’ve not got quite enough of a packet on you for my liking.”
Doreen died of cirrhosis of the liver. Not long before, she’d suffered second degree burns to her face when, seated with Alan at her 1970s teak laminate dining table, she’d sagged in a stupor into the shepherd's pie she had removed from the oven only moments earlier. Her house was one of those red brick, mid-twentieth century, middle-England constructions aptly called 'semis', not a single room of which, as Alan liked to say, was big enough to swing a cat in. It was all the more confining for its faux-French antique, velveteen upholstered furniture, patterned wallpaper with mismatching shag-pile carpeting and a surfeit of ornaments. Coincidentally, it was in the selfsame cul-de-sac that my wife had lived as a newborn. Alan had, on the fretful evening of her birth, been absorbed in following his wagers on “the horse racing on the telly”. Already well into labor, Brenda had asked him to drive her to the hospital. His response was to ask whether she couldn't manage to wait until the end of the next race, to which she replied, "Yes that's fine, if you can take care of cutting the cord". Disconcerted by this prospect, he drove her the one mile and even carried her case into the maternity ward, after which he dropped off his two daughters with his mother and promptly disappeared for the weekend.
On this second stay in Whitehaven, which took place during a heatwave in July, the town looked almost unrecognizably different. The harbor now had a gate so that its water level could be maintained at low tide, thus concealing the noisome harbor bottom. The narrow-gauge rails on the pier had gone and its eroded stonework had all been repaired or replaced. The town museum, duly renamed The Beacon, now occupied the previously abandoned and ruinous harbour lighthouse. There was a high speed inflatable boat service to carry tourists out to watch seals and dolphins in the bay, or view colonies of puffins nesting on its outlying islets. There were bicycle stands of stainless steel crafted to look like shoals of shiny fish and benches of thick glass and brass engraved with key events in the history of Whitehaven, including the 1778 raid by John Paul Jones of the American Congressional navy in command of the rebel brig, Ranger, which had been the only successful armed landing on British shores since the Norman invasion. Jones’s boat crews had spiked the harbor guns, after which they’d retired to a local alehouse to boast of their accomplishment before fleeing. In short, the place appeared transformed; even the gloomy Great Black Backs had given way to swifter, smaller more raucous and numerous herring gulls.
My previous visit had been in January and such a forlorn impression had the short, sleety cortege from church to cemetery at Amanda Roe neé Mossop’s funeral made upon me that, nearly a quarter of my life later, I was able to lead my wife, who was uncertain, right to the tombstone in the uphill rear corner. As I did so, I felt somewhat ashamed of the irony that I couldn’t say so much as what town any of my own grandparents was buried in, even though during my early childhood, I was closer with my mother’s parents than to either her or my father. My wife had bought a little pot of purple and white heather, which she now planted in the cup carved into the base of her grandma's small, grey granite headstone. Once she’d done this, she photographed our daughter, then aged twelve, and our son, then aged nine, seated in profile, on either side— a life-sized equivalent of the cherubim, seraphim or thrones that 17th century English masons liked to carve on the cornices of grander gravestones.
While this took place, my father-in-law hung back, seemingly afraid or ashamed to approach his mother’s grave. When she’d been buried in the early 1990s, her little monument had stood in a sparsely populated quarter of the cemetery. Now, there were scores of others all around it and, from Auriel’s comments on the late bearers of several of the names there inscribed, I wondered to what extent the order of these rows might duplicate that of the terraces of workers’ cottages outside the graveyard’s front gates, which ran parallel to Main Street, Hensingham, where those same names had, not so long since, attached to living men and women “going out mine” or mill of a morning, or to the pub of an evening, where they had, not so long since, sung along with music hall songs, or danced to big band jazz numbers before returning to their beds, whither they had snored and sighed, or cuddled and copulated into existence those generations now living who would, not all that long from now, be joining them in the clay here or (if not, no matter) elsewhere.
I returned to Whitehaven on a third occasion after another decade had passed, this time to witness my father-in-law’s own undoing. He’d been rolling back to his hotel along the main drag of the Thai sex tourism resort of Pattaya, coming home from what would prove to be the last of thousands of drinking binges, when he’d been struck down by a burst cerebral aneurysm. He ought rightly to have died but his northern English working man’s constitution was too strong, in spite of decades of functional alcoholism. He had lain comatose for weeks in an excellent Thai hospital. Two shunts had been implanted in his brain to drain it of coagulated blood and excess cerebrospinal fluid. When he came to, contrary to all reasonable medical expectations, he was neither a vegetable, nor had he suffered any lasting loss of mobility or ability to speak, or for that matter, to complete cryptic crosswords in tabloid newspapers.
He had, however, fallen prey to alcoholic Korsakoff’s Syndrome, the self-made victims of which lose their ability to form new memories and forget those of their memories connected with the more recent past. As such, his recollection of the late Doreen was obliviated, along with all recollection of his slide in middle age down the same corporate managerial ladder that he'd spent his entire young manhood climbing. Although he still knew his three daughters and their respective husbands, each time either Auriel or I would leave and re-enter the room, he’d express shock at how much older we were looking these days, whilst with our son, now eighteen years of age, his repeated reaction was an extreme version of standard grandfatherly disbelief at his little grandson’s having morphed into a grown man. He was, nevertheless, still his old self beneath his disability, as when he confided in our son, “I've got a woman hiding under the bed. I'll distract your parents while you sneak her out, lad.” Likewise, when a pretty care assistant came in to help get him ready to go out with us, he winked at her and said, “I never should’ve brought you home, you smell like a hospital.”
The start of the twenty-first century has been the first time in a century that there has been significant immigration into, rather than out of, Whitehaven. The gradual closure of each and every one of its mines and mills had sent thousands packing since the 1970s. Its historic architecture and striking setting were, at last, leading to some of that loss being recouped. Pottering around the streets, Alan kept on being bowled over at seeing Chinese and Indian restaurants, or hearing people who weren't white speaking in the region’s lazy, gruff Cumbrian accent. He had, himself, spent much of his career as a business executive pretending to ‘talk posh’, which in Britain, means middle class, southern English. But he’d forgotten how to do that now and seemed equally surprised to come across escapees from the rat race in the Home Counties around London, who nowadays ran twee bed and breakfasts or trendy coffee bars in his gritty hometown.
Yet despite the recent influx of new blood, there remains in Whitehaven a distinctive local physique and facial structure – strong and strapping, whether in its male or female form, high of cheek bone, smallish of eye and snubbish of nose – a kind of human equivalent to the Staffordshire bull terriers long popular across the north of England. On my previous visit, my father-in-law, who’d spent his young manhood aspiring to escape Whitehaven – and who'd formerly have been horrified to know that he was going to pass the rest of his life, not to mention his death, there – had relished periodically muttering, “God damn it, will you look at that!” under his breath when he’d pass the more heavily tattooed incarnations of the local archetype in the street.
Now all his sense of irony about his home place was lost. Largely gone too was his penchant for suddenly revealing personal landmarks, such as one time at a crossroads of two country lanes on the edge of town, where I could recall him saying to his grandchildren, “Your great grandma’s brothers, your great uncles John and William, who were a cracking pair of strong men, always used to stop for a smoke on this bench on their way for a drink at The Ewe and Lamb over on Cleator Moor,” or “You see that big house up yonder? It used to belong to a mad old lady named Mrs. Hilton, who’d stand on her doorstep in her black widow’s weeds, with her stockings fallen down round her ankles, calling out for her son who’d died years and years before in the Great War.”
Built, as it was, around a semi-circular harbor, Whitehaven rises up into the hills behind it on a grid plan, forming a sort of giant amphitheatre. And since it is mainly a Georgian and Victorian city, except for the modern ex-council housing that rings its edges, it is a place that has a great many chimney pots, as well as old trees lining its streets, so that the skies above it are criss-crossed at dusk by clouds of chattering, silver-eyed jackdaws flying home to roost. Perhaps it was simply down to its being Autumn on my third, and thus far final visit but Whitehaven is also one of the few places where I’ve witnessed those vast murmurations of starlings, which bear such a strong resemblance to visualizations of topological mathematics. According to my father-in-law, before he lost his mind that is, Whitehaven also once boasted more pigeon fanciers per capita than any other town in England, and that in the halcyon days of British pigeon racing.
Once such pigeon man had been his favorite uncle, nicknamed Sen for a habit of ever having on his tongue one of the miniscule yet highly potent licorice breath fresheners known as Sen-Sen. My wife had told me that running up the wall along the stairwell of Uncle Sen’s house were portraits in naive style of his prize-winning pigeons, which had beaten the competition home across the Irish Sea from the Isle of Man and cross-country over the North Pennines from Newcastle. On a rare visit home from university, having heard that Sen, widowed and going blind, had been moved into an old age home, she went over to see what had become of his birds and the images of their predecessors but, peering through the window, saw that the house had been emptied out. So much for the relics of the lost world of Britain’s industrial working class.
But the old world of the northern English proletariate was not entirely lost...not yet. I was driving my father-in-law round the outskirts of his birthplace when he suddenly emerged from apathy to laugh heartily and exclaim, “Any for Spatrie, laup out now! Laup out for Spatrie all!” We were passing a road sign for the nearby village of Aspatria, a nondescript place that one would not expect to call forth spontaneous jubilation. When I asked him what he meant, he explained, “Not worth the trouble at little places like Aspatria to bring steam locomotive to a full stop and then get her up to speed again. Until changeover to diesel, engine driver would just slow down. Passengers had to stand ready at doors to 'laup out'. No easy feat, I can tell you, especially with a two stone steel bicycle.”
“So, did you ever 'laup out' for Spatrie, Alan?” I inquired cheerily.
“Not lately that I recall, James but plenty in my time!” he mused smilingly.
“What do you mean?” I asked, anticipating some interesting Korsakoffian non-sequitur.
“Had another sense among me and my mates at grammar school.”
“What was that then?”
“Have a shag, get laid, dance the pelvic two step.” he chuckled before drifting back into indifferent silence.
I sat behind the wheel, following the curving lanes, taking in the dew glinting off the dry stone walls and marram grass of the fells, the occasional crook-backed mossy tree or sheep, while in my head I tried to picture them, his generation, in their Saturday night summer best, young men in sharply creased, shiny suits with Brylcreamed hair and young women in shape-hugging floral crinolined dresses, curl coiffed and hairsprayed, springing lightly from the train onto the platform or the platform onto the train with their broad, pale Whitehaven faces that soon blurred into the faces of all men and women, in all times and places, forever stopping a moment together, face to face (or otherwise, no matter) to recognize and renew themselves before they withered and dwindled into that dark from which I have sought perfunctorily to call a handful of them up, and to which I, and each of us, shall on a day not too far distant also sink down, hopefully having had one last fine chance to “Laup out for Aspatrie!” before bidding a final farewell to this cornucopic old Earth to join the ranks of grandma Amanda, great uncles Sen, William and John, or Mrs. Hilton and her long lost son.
James Bloom grew up on the upper east side of Manhattan, which he left at the age of 22 in order to escape the inexorable fate of pursuing a career befitting his station. Following this, he worked his way around the world as a beekeeper, an extra in a karate film, a microfiche assistant, a water baliff and, repeatedly, a waiter. Eventually he settled into a career teaching literature, history and philosophy along with being a college admissions advisor.