Nearly Northern - Tom Cox

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Sunday, 23 October 2016

Nearly Northern




I come from North Nottinghamshire. It's not a widely known fact but people do, every so often. One way that you could probably tell that I’m from North Nottinghamshire pretty quickly if you met me is that my accent sounds like unfiled nails scratching on the walls of Yorkshire asking to be let in. Like its taller and more attractive nextdoor neighbour, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire is one of those counties whose metropolis resides at its bottom end, meaning that pretty much three quarters of the county feels like the northern half, but the north-south distinction is an important one - probably more so than within most other counties. I remember first finding this out as a kid when, for eleven months, my parents and I moved south of the River Trent, and at my new primary school I was viewed with a curiosity that might generally be reserved for an exotic, illiterate young shepherd who made all his own clothes out of bracken. The following summer, when we moved back north to the more rural area we’d come from, close to the Derbyshire border, I was for the first and so far only time in my life branded as “posh”, due to some of the hoighty toighty verbal habits I’d picked up in the south, such as calling crying “crying” instead of “scratin’” and saying “self” instead of “sen”. I also generally steered away from “Aye up, me duck” as a greeting but this was mostly because a few years earlier I’d said it to the family dentist, who was from Sussex and owned a yacht, and my mum had told me I probably shouldn’t, because he might not like it.

The northern part of Nottinghamshire is where the feeling of being in the Nearly North starts. You don’t get that same feeling south of the Trent. You’re too close to Adrian Mole and Ashby De La Zouch. You’re still officially a Midlander if you grew up where I did but you’re only half an hour’s drive from people who can call themselves Northerners with no fear of social reprisal. Yet at the same time you wouldn’t be so bold as to rank yourself alongside them, partly because knowing your place is one of the defining characteristics of where you come from. After getting on for two decades living in places with soft, twangy accents in the southern half of the country, the edges of my North Nottinghamshirese have been vastly sanded down now, but much of the same geographical identity crisis remains. To friends here in Devon, where I live, I am invariably “The Northerner”. I would, however, never go up north and stake my claim to such an accolade. At the same time I tend to recognise far more of myself in people I meet from Sheffield or Manchester or Liverpool than I do in people I meet from the southern half of the Midlands. 

Travelling through north Nottinghamshire you see a roughening and bleakening of accent reflected in a roughening and bleakening of landscape. As I drove north west last week, from my mum and dad’s current house, in the eastern half of the county, each new place name seemed like a greater threat of desolate, bellicose sogginess: Blidworth, Blidworth Bottoms, Rainworth, Warsop. Potential relief is found in the fact that three population centres, Annesley, Kirkby and Mansfield, have subsidiary places attached to them going under the attractive name of “Woodhouse”, although there is more pebbledash than wood visible. Mansfield, where my friend Ollie’s Ford Fiesta burst into flames in 1992, is named after the river flowing through it, the Maun: a word which means, according to Allan Sillitoe in his 1987 book Alan Sillitoe’s Nottinghamshire, “to maunder mournfully”. Each town and village surrounding it appears to have at least two fish and chip shops, which could be seen as overkill but empirical evidence gathered by me on my journey suggests it is not. It was lunchtime as I looped around Mansfield’s encircling villages and everywhere I went, people were eating large paper bags of rain with chips in them. In Edwinstowe, near the Sherwood Forest Visitor Centre, I too ordered a bag of rain with chips in, from The Robin Hood Plaice fish bar: one of several establishments in the vicinity themed loosely around the area’s most infamous homicidal medieval gangleader. Happily, the Robin Hood Plaice Fish bar has a “vinegar then salt” policy. This is in relieving contrast to the “salt then vinegar” policy practiced by my local Devonshire chip shop, which, despite being a fairly open-minded person in some ways, I would certainly push to make illegal if I was ever elevated to a position of any political power in my home country.

I was on my way to play golf at Sherwood Forest, which is an excellent and challenging golf course, although has significantly less of the “Forest” to it than it did when I used to play it as a teenager, having lost 1200 of its trees during a hurricane three years ago. As the latter half of the course became a violent tunnel of resentful Nearly Northern wind, several members were caught in the blast. None were injured but I am informed that one man of a notably rotund nature was picked up by the gale then rolled around fifty yards down the 13th fairway before finally struggling to a halt. Despite the tree loss, playing the course’s narrow, heather-lined final nine holes is not a lot less difficult than spending two hours trying to keep the ball on the back of an unusually long snake. I was happy to discover that I was as enchanted by the place as I was when I did a dramatic eleventh hour wank up of my chances of winning a prestigious amateur tournament here as a kid. These greens and tees are beautifully maintained and it is so amazing to think that Robin Hood once strode chivalrously across them while romping to his fourth Open Championship victory, in 1887, with faithful Little John caddying for him, and Maid Marian in the clubhouse, waiting anxiously and playing bridge with the Lady Vice Captain, and pacing, always pacing, but as she did being sure not to venture into the Men Only Bar, for fear of political reprisal.


Sherwood Forest (not the golf course, as that would be ridiculous) once covered a great deal of the middle of the country, although not as much as was once believed. One of the problems with the clearance of forests is, of course, that it also tends to mean the dark legends that reside within them tend to get a populist scrub down. One minute you’re a hobgoblin, eating the beaks of owls and the livers of widows, living in a hollowed out tree and casting spells on the weather. Next minute, through no choice of your own, you’re the star of How To Date A Hobgoblin In A Fortnight, a heartwarming CGI tale of love and valour, with a sequel already in pre-production. So is the case with Robin Hood. There probably was no Robin Hood. Or at least if there was there were several of him: forest outlaws, known by the name Hood or Hod or Hode, who nicked the money and harps and tunics of well-to-do townsfolk. My own feeling is that at some point in the twelfth or thirteenth century one of these outlaws, feeling unusually generous one day and already owning eighty seven stolen tunics, decided to give one of his more guano-pelted and piss-stained stolen tunics to someone less well off than him, who owned a mere seven stolen tunics. Quickly, word spread across The Nearly North of the country about this astonishingly selfless deed, and one of the outlaw’s most sycophantic hangers on decided to use his stolen harp to write a song in tribute to it. Liking the song, Robin Hood decided not to sever his genitals from his body, as he’d initially been considering doing, and the song got played a lot more. A century or so later, a medieval proto-Kevin Costner-Bryan Adams character hybrid unveiled a cover of the ballad which gave an even more flattering and embellished version of events and from here it was always only going to be a few small steps to a pretty boy 1970s cartoon fox with a quiver on his back. Nonetheless, I feel a certain pride coming from The Land Of Robin Hood, especially as someone with an extreme fondness for capes and trees. There is also something undeniably fitting about his ties with Nottingham, which during the last decade was found to be the UK city where a person was statistically most likely to be assaulted by a stranger. 

Sherwood Forest itself - or at least as it is presently defined by a tourist map - is now of a piddling size and can be negotiated comprehensively on foot in a couple of hours. It was a warmish, extremely damp afternoon when I arrived at it last week - or, as it tends to be referred to by fungi, “party weather”. I knew I’d be disappointed by the size of the Major Oak, the forest's internationally famous ancient showtree, since I last saw it when I was ten and about half the size I am now but even though I prepared myself comprehensively for the disappointment there was an extra disappointment to be had on top of that but then I felt like a bad person due to the disappointment because it was essentially the same as meeting an old person who has shrunk several inches owing to curvature of their spine and can only walk with the help of a frame and saying to the old person, “Oh, that’s a shame. I thought you’d be a fair bit taller, and better at jogging.” Also, in the summer it has over 200,000 leaves, and I do not, and almost certainly never will have. All the same, as wide as its trunk is, I find it very hard to believe that Hood and his Merry Men managed to all hide in the hollowed out bit of it from The Sheriff Of Nottingham. After all, Friar Tuck was by all accounts a big guy who, when wanting to make calls from public phoneboxes around the Hucknall and Papplewick area, would legendarily have to get other gang members to go in and do the dialling for him then stretch the cord out as far as it would go and pass the receiver to him where he waited, in the doorway. 

There remain other dense, fairly extensive wooded patches in north Nottinghamshire which could, using only a little imagination, still be called “Sherwood Forest”, although they often don't have oaks quite as magnificent as those in Edwinstowe, many of which resemble self-sculpted Pagan totem poles. I lived about half a mile from one for the first decade of my life and then right on the edge of it for another four years as a larger but equally idiotic and impressionable juvenile. 

One of my chief memories of the latter place is the peace I would experience sitting alone deep in these woods on a summer day, listening to the tap-tap of a greater spotted woodpecker or the ch-cock of a pheasant. I wonder if, on the second or third day of hiding out in these woods, as the police helicopters circled above, the armed robbers who escaped into them in 1995 began to relax and experience a similar form of peace. I sometimes mentally combine these armed robbers with the other armed robbers who tied our neighbours to chairs, beat them with baseball bats and sprayed mace in their pet greyhound’s eyes, but this is incorrect: they were definitely different armed robbers. The neighbours who suffered the attack lived at the farm at the end of the track which our house fronted, looked after retired racehorses, and had an enormous damp barn full of over a century of damp equestrian literature. The barn, long since under different ownership, is now a far less damp tea room, serving a selection of DH Lawrence-themed lunches. I visited it in 2014 and, being in one of the conservative moods that take hold of me from time to time, chose not to investigate a dish called “Lady Chatterley’s Platter”. Our old garden, once full of chickens and easily accessible to the world - a little too easily, if you judge by the multiple burglaries we experienced - now boasted a high, unwelcoming fence and a dog whose formidable size was no less apparent for not being seen. There did not seem to be a cement mixer in the garden which was slightly surprising as 38% of the gardens in the area contain cement mixers, which is only slightly down on 1984, when 42% of the gardens in the area contained cement mixers. In the orchard where my cat Monty died in 1998 I spotted a cooking apple hanging from one of the trees by a final gossamer thread, waiting to drop. On its skin were two holes forged by grubs and a longer flesh wound, forming a human face that appeared to be grinning through some untold, deep-seated hardship.

Not long after Christmas 1993, when my mum and dad had signed the tenancy contract on the house but not yet moved in, my dad excitably drove to there through the snow, alone, with a canvas and some acrylic paints, then sat in an unheated bedroom and painted the freshly white valley which rolled down from the house then rose up to the woods. After years as a supply teacher he had just got a permanent job teaching at Greasley Beauvale Primary School, where DH Lawrence had once been a pupil. One lunchtime not long after that, my dad came out to the school car park and found the janitor taking the back off a huge, sturdy Victorian cupboard. My dad asked what the janitor planned to do with the cupboard. “It’s going to t’tip, Duck,” said the janitor. Built very beautifully from pitch pine, lending a liquorice quality to its grain, the cupboard had previously resided in Lawrence’s old classroom. Later that week I helped my dad carry the cupboard into a borrowed van then into our house. The cupboard moved again in 1999 to my mum’s next house in the north east of the county and has been in my mum and dad’s living room ever since. It is known as Dave’s Cupboard. Not long after the Dave’s Cupboard had been acquired, my dad wrote a children’s story, submitted it to a large national prize committee, and won, and shortly afterwards signed up with the literary agents Pollinger, who were best known for handling Lawrence’s estate. This eventually helped to pay the rent, which went to the Barber family, who, for centuries, had owned the local mines, and whose dynasty had sometimes appeared in thinly disguised fictional form in Lawrence’s novels. 

Lawrence grew up in Eastwood, a couple of miles down the road, where the joyriders often stole the cars that they later set fire to in the countryside near our house. In his 1913 novel Sons And Lovers he renamed the town “Bestwood” - which is doubly confusing, since there is an actual town called Bestwood on the north side of Nottingham too (where my dad had also done supply teaching). Lawrence wrote about the hard lives of miners and the often equally hard lives of those who lived with miners and he probably could not have avoided doing so, being from here. There are no miners in the last couple of generations of my family. My mum and dad were teachers. Their parents were factory workers, a part time sweet shop worker and a trade unionist. But, even so, during the eighties, living near Eastwood, our lives were inevitably altered by the coal industry. 

Many people would consider buying one house blighted by mining problems in a lifetime bad luck; my parents bought three in not much more than ten years. Had I been able to actually see these holes in the ground, they would perhaps be the defining image of my childhood. If they weren’t snaking their way around or beneath your house, making it wonky and hard to sell, someone was seeking planning permission to dig an open cast one in a field behind your garden. You rode your bike past the entrance to one, where pensive men sometimes sat warming themselves around an oil drum, then you got home and switched on the TV a bit too late to have caught the end of Blue Peter and other men were on the news, shouting or fighting in front of another one. During the miner’s strike in 1984 and 1985 the sirens of police cars heading to Pye Hill Colliery, only a hundred yards from our first, subsidence-blighted Nottinghamshire house, were a weekly, if not daily, soundtrack. I recently saw one of the old orange National Coal Board signs for the first time in many years and it made my head swim as a forgotten logo of a favourite adventure playground or theme park might do. Which is perhaps more logical than I initially would think since, for a long time, Pye Hill Colliery, or at least the steep spoil hill next to it, was my de facto adventure playground. I climbed its banks and found abandoned sofa parts and mattresses and tyres and turned them into dens.



“Oh, that pathetic grubby child, trying to fashion that rusty part of a wrecked Opel Manta into a door, on that large unnatural hump of densely packed old shale,” some people might have said, were they able to see me back then. “The poor boy doesn’t realise it’s not a real hill. And why is he wearing that cheap-looking cape?”  But I view myself as extremely lucky. Had I lived in the same village, Brinsley, a century earlier, I would have probably soon been working in, rather than playing next to, the pit. And it could have been worse still. I could have been one of the many children who died in it: 13 year old George Godber and John Shaw, for example, who were respectively “run over by tubs” and victim of a methane explosion during the 1870s. Or 12 year-old Edward Herberts, kicked to death by pit pony in 1895: an accident that seems slightly freakish until you read that it also happened to 15 year-old Walter North, only two years later. There does seem something a little… grudging entrenched in the North West Nottinghamshire character, but you have to deduce that it’s not without good reason: this is an area where the thankless toil and class struggles of the mining industry cast a long shadow. In the mid-80s, you could barely turn a corner around here without seeing another set of headstocks.

Much later, as an adult, I began to see headstocks in my dreams, but some dreams can be shy, even when you have a fairly regular and intimate relationship with them. You can have a one-off dream about a fox rolling his own wholewheat pasta, with apparently no relevance to your life, and there it will be, as soon as you wake up, recalled in glorious Technicolor, ready for you to retell over breakfast to a friend, lover or acquaintance who will pretend, if they're nice, to be interested. Then you’ll dream about another, much more powerful and personal image for years but you’ll never know the dream existed because, every time you woke from it, it had already scuttled off and hidden behind an old ironing board in the loft of your mind. The recurring image of headstocks was like that for me, and was actually one of two recurring dream images of tall structures on horizons in the landscape of my childhood. The other structure, I realised early last year, when I saw it again in real life for the first time in yonks, and the dream images came flooding back to me, was Crich Memorial Tower, which preens and glowers high on an inlier of spectacular limestone overlooking the River Derwent, around nine miles away from Brinsley, over the border in Derbyshire. Both images, especially when filtered through the psychedelic haze of sleep, had a compelling sci-fi quality to them, but the headstocks evoked the sci-fi of a climactic dystopian murder scene, a “finale of Get Carter, but in 2060” sort of ambience. The tower at Crich, meanwhile - while also haunting -  seemed more like the scene of the climax to some heroic quest undertaken by woodland creatures - the one in Hobgoblin 4: The Search For Maid Marian’s Bonnet, perhaps. This is fitting, since Crich to me represents a border to the magical real life otherworld known as The Peak District: the place where, if you lived in North Nottinghamshire, you might go for walks at the weekend but could only fantasise about actually affording to live in. I have no personal claim on the place but can get a bit possessive about it, such as recently when on an audiobook I was listening to a southern narrator pronounced it not as "Crych", as you're supposed to, but as "Crich", and I loudly called him a wankshaft, even though I was alone in my car, and nobody else was listening. 
   
The old headstocks at Clipstone - some of the last in the area to go out of use (in 2003) and the few still standing - are such a compelling and portentous vision that when I drove past them on my way to Sherwood Forest last week, I narrowly avoided swerving into a nearby garden and rear-ending a cement mixer. They’re the tallest in Europe and, combined with the blocky, brutalist building below them, make the disused colliery Robin Hood country’s nearest answer to the Tate Modern. There was a petition last year to turn it into an extreme sports centre with an indoor skydiving tunnel and a high wire suspended between the headstocks but at present it retains the stark fenced-off appearance of a place you go to get murdered. Standing beneath the towers you get a real sense of what a feat of accuracy it was when Robin Hood shot his arrow through both headstocks from a spoil heap three miles to the east, in 1901, having been bet four shillings by Guy Of Gisborne that doing so was beyond the realms of his ability as an archer. The headstocks aren’t in sight from Sherwood Forest Golf Course, which is a shame, as I think they could add an extra unnerving element to the already intimidating, bunker-strewn view from the sixteenth tee. What obscures the headstocks from visibility is another spoil heap. Again, as a kid, with no knowledge of the 1966 Aberfan disaster, I innocently thought it was just a nice hill that couldn’t do any harm to anyone. 

This district’s name, Ashfield, comes from the Old English for “open country”, not, as you might imagine, from “field full of a big load of ash”, but something that makes the place cohere into a recognisable topographical whole is a constant sense of how close what is underground is to the surface: a feeling that the landscape is a thin skin over something hot. This changes when you begin to reach the outskirts of Nottingham, but that, too, is a city strongly defined by the subterranean. Many of the city’s vagrant population were making rudimentary homes for themselves in caves right up until the 1970s. In 1998 I bought a job lot of rare 1970s funk from the excellent Good Vibrations record shop on Mansfield road but found, when I got it home, that the grooves of the LPs were full of sand. I went back and asked the shop’s owner, Sharon, why this might be. “Oh, the guy who used to own them said they were the records he used to play in his club years ago, which was in one of the caves, and they’ve been sitting there ever since," she replied. For a long time afterwards I fantasised about this mythological sandstone nightspot and wished I knew of a similar cavernous space where I could go and dance to Kalimba Story by the lesser-known earlier, heavier incarnation of Earth, Wind & Fire. I at least had the (now defunct) Hippo nightclub on Bridlesmith Gate to go to, which had a notable grotto feel to it, meaning that, when my friend Surreal Steve and his friend Rich had an argument about the girl Surreal Steve was seeing, it felt slightly like being in a low rent Nearly Northern version of the Cantina scene from Star Wars. 

Arguably Nottingham’s most famous possibly factual story of the Middle Ages is of the capture of the Regent Of England, Roger Mortimer, by Edward III’s men in a cave where he’d been hiding, beneath the castle, in 1330. This is now known as Mortimer’s Hole and, when you’re in it, on one of the Castle’s guided tours, you get a fair idea of what it might be like to be shrunk to the size of a fruit fly and tunnel through a Crunchie Bar. There’s a not-for-public-use passage which leads from The Hole to Ye Olde Trip To Jerusalem, which in a very Nottingham, very “almost” way, claims to be the oldest pub in England, but isn’t quite. 

When I first started going drinking in Nottingham my dad told me not to go to the Trip because it was “FULL OF HELLS ANGELS WITH KNIVES” but when I finally built up the courage to visit it was largely populated by mildly excitable middle-aged American tourist couples in matching anoraks. In the upstairs bar of the Trip, beneath a 12th Century jacket potato ceiling, you’ll find a glass case containing a model ship of such dustiness that it appears to be growing its own duffle coat. This is known as The Haunted Galleon and, legendarily, anyone who has attempted to clean it has died within a year of doing so. You find yourself wondering if there is any smallprint to this rule. What if an industrial cleaning company with a redoubtable reputation turned up en masse and a small section of rigging was assigned to each member of the team? Would ecologically sound products help? If you pressure-washed the galleon, but made sure to stand outside the threshold of the bar as you did so, would it break the evil spell?


Walk up the hill to the Castle and the museum inside, and you will learn that, during the middle of the 19th Century, Nottingham was “the worst slum in the British Empire outside India”. In 1831, the townsfolk rioted, protesting the rejection of the Reform Bill by the House Of Lords, and burned down the old castle, dancing next to the River Leen, in one of quintessential Nearly Northern mardiness’s finest hours. Nottingham can pride itself on a strong history of riots, such as the Goose Fair cheese riot of 1776, during which the town mayor - according to JB Firth’s 1924 book Highways and Byways in Nottinghamshire - was “felled by a cheese”. The riot - eventually broken up by the 15th Light Dragoons - came about due to dairymen raising the price of cheese unfairly and trounces the myth that cheese rage - a condition from which I frequently suffer, especially since going vegetarian - is a solely 20th Century phenomenon. 

Goose Fair is held on the Forest Recreation Ground, between my old primary school and the once-benighted area of Hyson Green. In the summer of 1981, Hyson Green was the scene of another riot. That summer, the summer of Grandmaster Flash’s ‘Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels Of Steel’, the summer of Kool Klyle’s ‘It’s Rockin Time (Rock Rockin Time)’, was a hot one, full of urban unrest: the same summer that Miss Needham, my first teacher, had words with our whole class about our excessive use of the words “willies and johnnies”, and I was made to stand on the wall after being uncharacteristically rude to a dinner lady. “Stand on the wall” was the term in popular use but I didn’t actually stand on the wall, I just faced it. If I had really had to stand on the wall that would have felt a lot less like punishment, allowing me to see over the rooftops towards Forest Fields and Hyson Green and a swimming pool which all pupils dreaded swimming in due to the legend that one of the instructors there flicked his bogeys, which were invariably of a greater than average size, into the deep end.

Last week, after I’d driven back from Nottingham to my mum’s current house, I spoke to my dad, who was in the garden, picking up strimmed grass using a pitchfork my mum had found for him at a car boot sale. He told me a little about the history of the pitchfork which, as well as being a long-standing symbol of baying mobs and the peasantry, is, if well-crafted, amazingly effective for picking up and propelling grass, hay and straw, and very distinct in design from a garden fork. A few weeks ago, my dad continued, he had been on a multicultural tour of hairdressers in Radford Hyson Green. “What made you do that?” I asked. 

“I SAW IT ADVERTISED ON A LAMPPOST AND THOUGHT IT WOULD BE INTERESTING AND IT WAS. ONE HAD A DOG IN IT THAT KEPT JUMPING ON PEOPLE'S LAPS. IT WAS ONE OF THOSE DOGS WHERE YOU DON'T KNOW WHICH END IS WHICH. ON THE WAY BACK ON DERBY ROAD I SAW A COCKCHAFER BEETLE ON THE PAVEMENT AND RESCUED IT. AFTERWARDS I WENT INTO TOWN AND SAW A BUSKER SHOUTING AT A BLOKE WITH NO LEGS ON EXCHANGE WALK, THEN A DRAGONFLY FLEW UP EXCHANGE WALK PAST ALL OF US. CENTRAL NOTTINGHAM HAS MORE WILDLIFE THAN YOU THINK.”



The next day I left my parents’ house for Devon, taking a lengthy detour north to visit Little John’s Grave, in Hathersage, a little south of Sheffield. There is no proof that the person in the grave is Little John, only the knowledge that in 1782 the grave was opened and the skeleton of a man around seven feet tall was discovered who had allegedly lived in a cottage in the village: facts that, coupled with the bow and arrows that hung in the church, clearly prompted Georgian romantics in the locality to make the declaration “seems legit”. If John did exist - and I personally like to think he did, since his nickname speaks volumes for Nottinghamshire’s long and abiding tradition of hardline sarcasm - I can’t help wondering if he spent his days here owing to a frustration of so many years of being Nearly Northern and wanted to feel like the real thing. Because when you look up from the cemetery towards Stanage Edge, there can be no doubt that you’re finally in the proper north: The Nearly North, as bleak as it can sometimes seem, does not have hills and moorland like this. 

I didn’t tell my dad I was taking a detour to Hathersage on the way home as I knew he would have called me a twazzock for doing so. He’s had years of bearing witness to my mum’s and my shared genetic trait of constantly overreaching ourselves and being utterly unrealistic about timing and he will not shirk from defaming this aspect of our character. Earlier in the week he’d been in Devon housesitting for me and visited Burgh Island, which he’d liked but, in feedback for my recent foolhardy attempt to swim around it, had used the phrase “TWAT ISLAND, MORE LIKE”. With this in mind, I also didn’t mention that, on the way to Hathersage, before the six hour journey south home from there, I was planning to make three additional pitstops, one of them being at our old house in Brinsley. 

I parked on the north side of Brinsley, close to the foot of the Pye Hill spoil heap and walked up what used to be the pit road but is now a picturesque footpath through a tunnel of trees. The spoil heap itself exploded with vegetation. A set of neat, steep concrete steps with metal railings led to its pinnacle. I walked across the top of the spoil heap and saw no mattresses or old car parts. “SOMEONE ONCE TRIED TO DRIVE A MINI COOPER UP IT,” my dad had recalled earlier that morning. “THEY DIDN’T MAKE IT.” I passed two dog walkers, each of whom said a cheery hello, neither of whom, I was disappointed to note, called me “Duck”. Where the colliery itself had stood was a meadow with two grazing horses, a little heathy at the edges. Not even a ghost of the building remained, not even that North Nottinghamshire sense of thin green skin covering hot buried waste. It was impossible to imagine what it had looked like in the mid 80s: the oil drums, the police meanly driving into a snowman the striking miners had made (then driving into a subsequent snowman, constructed around a concrete bollard, with - for them - significantly less amusing consequences), the dystopian metal wheels in the sky.

I retraced my steps but, before I got back into the car, couldn’t resist a glance at the farm across the road where my friends, Lucy and Rosie Whale, used to live. I remember leaping off bales of hay with Lucy in her mum and dad’s barn and coming home with hot scratched skin. With Nicholas and Adam, two children from a few doors further up the road, Lucy, Rosie and I had formed a not very North Nottinghamshire gang which re-enacted Enid Blyton stories. I had never read Enid Blyton and preferred Roald Dahl, but that never mattered. It was all very lovely, involving a headquarters in Lucy and Rosie’s garage, which we often opened up, selling orange squash, biscuits and old books to passers by, of which there were virtually none, and all in all was a far more positive and innocent experience than my previous Brinsley friendships, which had variously involved my one Star Wars figure being set ablaze and a thirteen boy stick fight in the neighbouring village of Underwood. 

My parents and I left Brinsley in 1985. I had a memory of going back to look at the house one time not all that long after that, and Lucy, Rosie, Adam and Nicholas coming out to say hello to me. But I remembered the memory wrong initially. I thought it had happened at a time when we’d moved back to North Nottinghamshire from our brief spell in a southern suburb of the city but it had in fact occurred before that, when we were still living in the South Nottinghamshire suburb. I’d attended a city primary school when I’d been friends with the Brinsley gang but it had not altered me in the same way. When we’d moved to the suburb, south of the Trent, and moved to a new primary school there, my life had become more intertwined with the area around the school and the culture of its kids. My accent quickly began to smooth out, I’d become more sporty, louder, more confident and, under pressure from peers, cajoled my parents into buying a birthday brand name cagoule and shoebag for Christmas. I began to make outrageous, fictional claims about my future, such as that I was going to Canada, and become obsessed with zips and mustard. No longer Nearly Northern, I was becoming - though I didn’t know it - that exotic thing, a proper Midlander, and feeling pretty cocky about it. 



My dad and I had parked more or less where I’d parked today, then walked down the road to the house. We noticed its windows had changed and that its Asbestos garage had been taken down, then returned to the car. We weren’t there for more than a few minutes but it was the kind of village where you didn’t need to be, for your presence to be collectively noted. As my dad started the engine, we noticed Lucy, Rosie, Nicholas and Adam in the mouth of the farm’s driveway, smiling and waving. My dad asked if I’d like him to stop the car, so I could say hello to my friends. I debated the matter for all of two seconds and declined. I can still picture their four grinning faces, none of which contained an ounce of worldly cynicism. As we passed them, I offered the most slight and truculent of waves: a wave which, though not yet adolescent, pre-empted all the easily impressed, fickly dismissive truculence of adolescence. I doubt any of them remember me now, and doubt further still that it has any lasting impact on their lives, but I still think about it often, and profoundly regret it.


You can read more of my nature writing in my latest book, or the one before it. The latest one has also just been published in  the US and Canada.

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Nearly Northern Reviewed by Tom Cox on 09:39:00 Rating: 5

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

Absolutely brilliant! Being Nearly Northern myself I recognise so many of the places you mention. To southerners went I lived and worked in London I was definitely a Northerner, to friends from Yorkshire and Lancashire I was from 'somewhere in the model's, so feel very much like you do. Fantastic descriptions, with very funny observations and musings. Thanks Tom. Looking forward to your next book, whenever that will be...in the meantime i get the joy of your website articles.

Squirl said...

I loved this piece from your past. Sorry you have regrets about the wave to your old friends. So many times we'd all like to go back and replay things that happened in our lives.

Hayley Toll said...

Great piece Tom! A lovely personal tour of Nottinghamshire. Despite being miles away (I grew up in Cornwall), it brought back a lot of happy memories of my own childhood in an ex-mining area. We had the BEST camp in a patch of japanese knotweed, which had grown up over a pit in the peaks and troughs of the mine-waste. My mum's broom handle that I weaponised against raiding gangs is still in there somewhere...between you and me, when I walk past nowadays and see the clump of flowers denoting the 'secret' entrance, I'm still tempted to trample the overgrown bracken and take a peek.
I have to say though, I'm still confused as to where the North actually begins! I lived in Stoke for a while. Picking up some of the accent, (I cannot pronounce onion without starting with a'u'sound to this day), I was accused of turning into a Northerner by friends back in Cornwall. The Cornish being reknowned for their sense of North of course, being generally beyond where they themselves never went. For some that would be Saltash, others Bodmin -the further Southwest you lived the more likely it started from Truro. In fact, My mother could only be persuaded to cross the Tamar when Cliff Richard was putting on a concert. Yet, I know that my proud Mancunian lecturer was, and still is after locating to Derby, considered a mere Midlander by his relatives. It seems the further North you go, the higher the dividing line is. Everything is relative I suppose, as is so much else in life.
Anyways, keep writing -you always put a smile on my face.

Hayley

Anonymous said...

I loved this. Now you will have lots of readers pulling their shoulders back, thinking "yeah, I'm in the Nearly Northern club too," and feeling that they belong after being scorned by people from west of the Pennines. I grew up in North Lincs and for years have been insisting that as it is on a similar latitude to Manchester, nobody should decry its Northern credentials. Realistically though the most recognition us yellow bellies can hope for now is the odd experience of strangers looking curiously askance at us in shops and saying "are you Guy Martin's sister? You sound just like him." Our word for crying was 'bealing' and I soon learned not to say that when trying to make friends at uni in the south.
The bits about Robin Hood and the miners' snowman round a bollard made me laugh. Don't listen to the TLDR people; your longer pieces are a delight, a real treat to look forward to with a cup of tea.

Ellen Zahl said...

This is a rich, delicious, delight, Tom. How anyone would have you cut it short is an abomination. Or at least very silly. Now that I don't read much, I save my eyes for my favorites. Thurber comes to mind, but you treat humans better & worse.
The sense of where you are--trees, mud, critters---. Keep it going.

Ellen Z

Adrian Clark said...

Excellent daft/poignant/interesting stuff as ever, Tom. I know the "nearly northern" thing well... years of explaining to southerners that I'm not actually northern, and to northerners that I'm not a Tory-voting stockbroker. And even then, "East Midlands? What's that, Birmingham?"

You also remind me how much quickly-changing detail there is in the landscape, even in a country as small as the UK. Lincoln's only 30 miles from Mansfield, but the landscapes of my childhood were so different. Huge skies, dykes, endless straight roads alongside fields of sugar beet. Our only connection with Notts coal was the looming cooling towers on almost every car journey north, east or south from Lincoln. I could probably name them all once... only Cottam springs to mind now.

Matt said...

This reminds me of when my mum used to take me to IKEA and would drive through Heanor and Aldecar where she used to be a district nurse, and she'd say 'all the pubs round here are full of men in woolly tank tops with big tattoos.' I also used to visit a friend in Selston which involved getting loads of buses and I remember loving the last bit of the journey round there, I loved how bleak it was!

Great read, thank you!

Debra said...

I love this. I grew up in Mansfield, my dad worked at Clipstone and my grandparents lived at Blidworth Bottoms. I was going to say it wasn't as grim as it sounds, but then reflected that a. they never had hot running water despite living there till the 90's; b. the bath was in the kitchen separated only by a flimsy sliding door; and c. the main draw was the pub where my nan worked, which attracted a large number of Hell's Angels until the drink-driving laws were passed when it went into a steady decline (decades later my nan could still work herself into a fury at the mere sight of an anti-drink driving ad on TV). So it probably was pretty grim in hindsight.

Chris said...

I really enjoyed this as it brought back so many memories from the very distant past. I grew up in Pleasley but headed to North Yorkshire to College and then teaching, where I was always regarded as a Southerner. I eventually met and married an Aussie and left in 1979 but still relate to being a Near Northerner. He'd never heard an accent like mine and I still smile when I recall his bewildered expression when trying to understand my mother asking if the tea was mashed.

Anonymous said...

Re Debra's kitchen bath near Northern grimfest
We had a bath in the kitchen too with a really heavy plywood lid on it because the plumbing was only on the ground floor. This bath doubled up as a shelf/ dumping ground for lots of stuff. Seemed normal at the time....and this was in 1971! Oh dear this is sounding like the Four Yorkshiremen.
When I met my husband from the soft South a decade later he visited my home territory and we went to the chippy on the corner. He was already unhappy about the lack of real ale in the pubs (Worthington E etc only, sadly) and was further discomfited when Maureen the chip lady said to him laconically "D'yer want scraps?" "No! he retorted, faintly alarmed, I want chips!"

Fi said...

I really love these long pieces, you take so much in on your wanderings, always a pleasure to read (it makes me sit down and READ, not skip over it on the phone screen, as so many online pieces do). On being nearly northern, I am supposedly a 'proper' northerner (Yorkshire) but that doesn't stop my friends from Co. Durham and Northumberland telling me I'm most definitely not a 'proper' one at all. It's a competition no-one can win (unless maybe you're from Alaska or Svalbard or something...)

Jim Goodwin said...

Nice one Tom,
I was born in Nottingham , lived in Derby Road and Westdale Lane, then Derby rd again before emigrating to Australia at the age of 8, in 1961.

Remember going to the Goose Fair, and Westdale Lane area as being close to the countryside (where I couldn't say). There were cows and creeks (streams).

Also share your interest in vinyl, oh, and cats.

Cheers,

jim goodwin

Red P said...

That was a fantastic long read and you've captured the area past and present beautifully. I did the opposite and started of in the South-West then moved North followed by nearly-North and live on the edge of the Peaks. Too often this area brings about negative writing or glorifies the past or tourist areas. You've given it atmosphere and humour - thanks for a great piece.

Helen said...

As a Worksoper living in Surrey I can relate. I've carved out an identity for my self as 'the northerner' but I live in constant fear of coming across a fellow nearly northerner and being outed.