A Journey Around The Whole Island Of Great Britain: Day Fourteen Knotti ngley, Yorkshire

Aunt Dot, siren of the Yorkshire Bronx
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The Independent Online
It was not what I remembered. When I was at university I secured a holiday job on the Pontefract & Castleford Express. For two months I was given the town of Knottingley to cover. It was my first reporting job. Nothing much happened there. The usual round of golden weddings and house fires was enlivened only by a winter gas escape from the local chemical factory, which had turned the snow pink. What would the little industrial community be like, 20 years on? Might it still be a residuum of the sense of community which has evaporated elsewhere?

Some things were still familiar. There was the sign for the village of Kippax. The area's most prolific newspaper letter-writer, Sam Cheeseborough, had lived there. His typewriter was distinguished by lacking the letter "a", a deficiency he rectified by typing "o" and then drawing a line at its side, except when he was agitated or inebriated, in which case you would receive a missive from Som of Kippox. Then there was the signpost for Goole, an unprepossessing place which one of its councillors once referred to in official session as "the arsehole of the earth"; the Goole Times, with uncharacteristic gentility, rephrased this in its front-page headline as "Goole: anus of the world".

But memory is a faulty device. Often we recall only snapshot images and then string them together with whatever our imagination can find to hand. Two decades ago I would routinely make calls, in person or by phone, to the police, fire brigade, ambulance, vicar and local hairdresser. It was the hairdresser who provided the only really interesting snippets. But, try as I might, I could not decide which was her salon now.

There was a Salon 5 at the Ferrybridge end of the town. There was an unfamiliar-looking Altered Images. Up by the Pigeon and Pet shop (four different kinds of coloured maggots wriggling in trays, for sale by the pint) there was Aromystique, an aromatherapist who told me she had only just opened and, no, she hadn't been a hairdresser's before.

In a little terrace off Womersley Road I called on Heather Oaksey, who was once a radiographer at the Pontefract General Infirmary and was now, in retirement at the age of 63, a big wheel in the local Labour Party. "You must mean Eithne Green," Mrs Oaksey said. "Eithne Matthewman, her maiden name was. She had a salon down on Racca Green. But she's dead now. Anyway, those were the days when people sat in a row under the dryers, chatting. It's all individual blow-dries now." So there it was, the tonsorial revolution, destroyer of community.

In fact, quite a lot else had altered. All the area's coal mines had closed, save one. And although Croda (solvents and hydrocarbons) and Rockware Glass continued to discharge plumes of smoke into the air, technology had reduced the number of jobs they provided.

Yet something positive had come out of the miners' strike which Margaret Thatcher used as the prologue to shutting down the industry. "Though it sounds daft to say it, a great feeling of community grew up in the miners' strike. And the miners' wives' groups gave the women a sense of their own worth. The Warwick community centre is run by an offshoot of the group; they do English, maths and computers and make boots and shoes there now."

The Warwick estate, known to local taxi drivers as The Bronx because of its drug-dealing and crime rate, is 1,200 houses thrown up 30 years ago to accommodate miners from Scotland and Durham when pits were shut there. Today many of the houses are boarded up. So, too, is the Syd Club (Scotland, Yorkshire and Durham) where Mrs Oaksey worked as a weekend barmaid ("me Aunt Dot used to sing there, too").

But what has survived is the sense of family which held the community together. People may not live as close to their relatives now as they did when Heather Oaksey was a girl. She used to nip across into the furnace room at the glassworks every morning with her grandad's breakfast between two saucers in a red and white kerchief, with a billycan of tea. But though her two daughters don't live in the next street, they are not far off.

"My youngest daughter helps with my garden. She and her kids come here twice a week. And I pick them up from school if she's busy. I still look after me mother, who's local. Auntie Ethel, me dad's sister, cat-sits for me. Me two brothers live in Knottingley and there's another relative in this same terrace. The extended family is still a reality here."

The fact would not have surprised Stanley Ellis, of the Yorkshire Dialect Society, whom I had met earlier in the week. "Academics and media folk generalise from their own experience, like everyone else," he had said. "So they suppose that the population is mobile because the middle class is. But ask your plumber where his mum lives. Most people still live near where they were brought up." Mr Ellis once spent eight years of field work in a different village each week for a mammoth survey of English dialect. Mrs Oaksey's testimony seemed to back him.

We set out for the Knottingley Working Men's Club to give my sample greater statistical respectability. On the way we passed the old town hall, which was now a community centre rather than a place of municipal administration. Mrs Oaksey was a regular there on Tuesdays at the line dancing class.

Now, what kind of metaphor was line dancing for one's sense of community, I wondered. Well, she said, you had no partner, but you did it with other people. It was a kind of compromise, then, between the communal and the individualistic, I suggested. In reply she merely executed a few sprightly steps; she was surprisingly light on her feet for a pensioner of her size.

In the club a group of dour-faced men were sat with half-empty pints watching the end of the football. We sat quietly until it finished, whereupon Mrs Oaksey tried repeatedly to engage them in conversation. It was not a men-only bar, but she was the only woman there. The men parried her every opening with dogged truculence. But she was persistent.

Their resistance became a game. "This man's wife was the social services' carer for my mum," she said to me, as if by explanation, at one point.

"Ee, lad, she knows more about thee than tha' duzz thee'sen," one of his friends cried triumphantly. They all laughed, but the man remained monosyllabic.

But then, perhaps, it was not her they were resisting but the unintroduced stranger at her side. Community, after all, is not simply about who you include, but also about who you exclude. I laughed, but I took the hint and left.

Tomorrow: Cambridge.

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