Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Manchester

Corruption and Construction

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Wednesday August 20 2014.

Colman's Column3

Urban renewal seems to be inseparable from corruption. T Dan Smith was once a local hero in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and then he was sentenced in 1974 to six years in prison for accepting bribes. Smith believed strongly in the need to clear Newcastle of slum housing and put a great deal of effort into regeneration plans.

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Modernist planning was at its height in Britain during the 1960s, after the end of post-war austerity. Newcastle, as well as Manchester and Birmingham, was drastically transformed. It was a time of “clean sweep” planning, where the only constraints on redevelopment were economic. Conservation policy was restricted to the preservation of a limited number of major buildings and monuments. In his article, Alas Smith and Burns? Conservation in Newcastle upon Tyne city centre 1959–68, John Pendlebury of the School of Architecture at Newcastle University, wrote “though modernist rationalism was the driving force in the city’s re-planning, it co-existed with a conscious policy of conservation, born out of a picturesque design tradition.”

Not everyone appreciated Smith’s efforts. Alec Glasgow wrote a contemporary folk song:

Weep, Geordie, weep,

At the murder of your city.

Weep, Geordie, weep

For the vandals have no pity.

 

Smith’s name is usually spoken in negative terms regarding the destruction of historic and aesthetically pleasing buildings, which were replaced with a concrete jungle.

Some called him Smith “Mr Newcastle” others called him “the mouth of the Tyne”. Another nickname was “one-coat Smith”. When he ran a painting and decorating firm, his painters were noted for their stingy use of materials. Despite this, the firm was granted more than half the contracts for painting council houses.

While his evangelical zeal to make Newcastle a better place may have been genuine, Smith’s desire to make money was stronger and got mixed up with his political ambitions. Smith was appointed Chairman of Newcastle council’s Housing Committee in 1958 and was elected as Leader of the City Council in 1959. He created one of the country’s first free-standing Planning Departments and made it the most powerful department in the council. He strengthened his power by creating an inner Cabinet of his own supporters. When Harold Wilson became prime minister in 1964, Smith was confident that he would be invited to take a national ministerial post. However, Wilson had vague suspicions about Smith’s probity and did not call him.

In 1962, Smith set up a PR firm to support redevelopment of other urban centres in the northeast, and later nationwide. Through this, he established links with John Poulson, an architect with a reputation for rewarding those who put business his way. Smith eventually received £156,000 from Poulson for his work, which typically involved signing up local councillors on to the payroll of his companies and getting them to push their councils to accept Poulson’s redevelopment schemes. Poulson earned more than £1,000,000 through Smith.

Poulson

Another of Poulson’s contacts was the then Shadow Commonwealth Secretary Reginald Maudling. In 1966, Maudling accepted an offer to be Chairman of one of Poulson’s companies for £5,000 per annum. Maudling’s son Martin, who had left Oxford University without taking a degree, went to work for another Poulson company. Poulson agreed to donate large sums of money to a charity patronised by Maudling’s wife. Maudling helped to bring pressure on the government of Malta to award a £1.5 million contract for the new Victoria Hospital on Gozo to Poulson. This had led to heavy losses to the Maltese government. A Parliamentary inquiry into Maudling’s conduct concluded that he had indulged in “conduct inconsistent with the standards which the House is entitled to expect from its members”.

Reginald_Maudling

No punishment was imposed but Maudling drank himself to death at the age of 61. The son, William Maudling, 42, who once lived in Downing Street with his family, threw himself from the 16th floor in 1999, his life ruined by heroin.

Smith’s PR firm was also involved with Wandsworth Borough Council in pushing a redevelopment scheme. Smith’s Wandsworth council contact, Alderman Sidney Sporle, fell under police suspicion of corruption in the late 1960s. The police investigation led to Smith himself being charged with bribery in January 1970. He was acquitted at his trial in July 1971, but was forced to resign all his political offices. Smith was arrested again in October 1973 after Poulson’s 1972 bankruptcy hearings disclosed extensive bribery. He pleaded guilty in 1974 and was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment; despite his guilty plea, he continued to assert his innocence.

After his death, Smith’s career was the inspiration for Austin Donohue, a character in Peter Flannery’s play, Our Friends in the North. The part was first played by Jim Broadbent in the Royal Shakespeare Company production, and then by Alun Armstrong (who once stayed at our friends’ guesthouse in Badulla) in the 1996 BBC television drama version.

Back in the early 70s, I worked as a social security visitor in a poor district of Manchester. Some of the street names were already familiar to me from reading about the Moors Murderers. Brady and Hindley once trod those drab streets in Gorton and Ardwick. Things were changing in those days. The streets had been built as warrens of terraced back-to-back houses for the workers of the industrial revolution. Lives could be cramped and stunted but there was also a sense of community still celebrated by the popular teledrama Coronation Street, which started in the early 60s and is still running.

Manchester Corporation, like similar ruling bodies in other municipalities, probably had good intentions when they embarked on slum clearance and urban renewal. Some of the old houses were pretty grim with outside toilets and some had gas mantles rather than electric light.

New blocks sprang up quite quickly. These resembled something out of a movie about the French Foreign Legion. Local people called them Fort Ardwick and Fort Beswick. As well as disrupting the sense of community enjoyed in the old terraces these new blocks might have been designed to assist crime with their walkways in the sky.

Even when they were brand new, these dwellings proved not fit for purpose. They were put up very quickly using prefabricated materials like a huge Lego kit. They were not as durable or well-designed as Lego.

The kind of concrete used caused condensation indoors so that the walls were dripping wet, causing respiratory problems in the elderly and in babies. Under floor heating was installed which could not be controlled by the tenants. Tenants were often baked to a frazzle and faced with huge fuel bills that they could not pay. A friend of mine lived in a council property in Hulme and found the place infested with cockroaches and beetles because the walls were built of straw.

I visited Manchester eight years ago and the area once covered by Fort Beswick had neat little rows of houses all on ground level. Although there was more space and the houses looked in good condition, they did rather remind me of the old terraced houses that were demolished in the 1960s and 1970s.

Not far from Beswick is the new home of Manchester City football club. The new stadium was built at a cost of GBP 110 million for the 2002 Commonwealth Games. The stadium is owned by the City Council and leased by the football club which, despite its previous lack of glamour, in 2008 became the richest club in the world after a takeover by an Arab consortium headed by Dr Al-Fahim, known as the Donald Trump of Abu Dhabi. A previous owner was former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, known to Mancunians as “Frank Sinatra”.

Manchester City FC signed an agreement with the Council in March 2010 to allow a £1 billion redevelopment led by architect Rafael Vinoly of land around the stadium and possible stadium expansion. In a spooky link with T Dan Smith, Vinoly was hiredby Wandsworth Council in London to develop the area around Battersea Power Station. The proposed development is supposed to generate 15,000 jobs. The network of tall curved blocks of offices will block the view of Sir Gilbert Scott’s industrial masterpiece. The accommodation is not intended to attract local families but hordes of predatory bankers with no children but easy access to the City and huge bonuses.

Manchester City’s stadium was a part of the massive Eastlands redevelopment. According to the consultative regeneration framework document, 3,000 jobs were created in ten years. This is low considering that at least 2,000 jobs were axed to cut public spending. The much-lauded regeneration of East Manchester never lived up to the hype of galvanising growth and job-creation in one of the city’s most deprived areas. New jobs tended to be poorly paid ‘flexible’ jobs, servicing the consumption habits of middle classes. Only half of the hundreds of new jobs at supermarkets went to local residents. Save the Children found that 27 %per cent of children in Manchester were living in “severe poverty” – the worst record of any local authority in the country.

On my last visit to Manchester, the city centre was very different from the bleak place it was during the Thatcher years. The IRA did the city a favour by blowing up the ugly Arndale Centre and opening the way to better buildings. The new city centre reminded me of Seattle. There were luxury apartments and chic hotels. Even old churches and cotton mills had been converted into housing. Salford used to be grim but now it has luxury accommodation and an arts centre dedicated to LS Lowry. Somehow, it was still grim.

According to the Eastlands document, 5,000 extra homes have been built in East Manchester. However, the Manchester-Salford Housing Market Renewal Pathfinder (whoever came up with that name!) between 2008 and 2009 demolished 2,200 more homes than it built at a cost of GBP 600 million. The project ground to halt, leaving a wasteland behind it.

How will Beswick, Bradford and Lower Openshaw compete with the new enterprise scheme at Manchester Airport (another arm of the council)? There are many empty office blocks in Manchester and but more will be built at the airport.

Some people will have made a lot of money out of continually knocking British cities down and re-building them. Not many of those people will go to prison like T Dan smith did. In 1985, Smith wrote that “Thatcherism, in an odd sort of way, could reasonably be described as legalised Poulsonism. Contributions to Tory Party funds will be repaid by the handing over of public assets for private gain”.

Thatcherism and Poulsonism live on in all the British political parties.

The Enigma of Exile

Colman's Column3

 

The exile’s new world, logically enough, is unnatural, and its unreality resembles fiction. Edward Said.

George Eliot, in her novel Daniel Deronda, wrote:

“A human life, I think, should be well rooted in some spot of a native land, where it may get the love of tender kinship for the face of earth, for the labours men go forth to, for the sounds and accents that haunt it, for whatever will give that early home a familiar unmistakable difference amid the future widening of knowledge: a spot where the definiteness of early memories may be inwrought with affection, and kindly acquaintance with all neighbors, even to the dogs and donkeys, may spread not by sentimental effort and reflection, but as a sweet habit of the blood.”

 

Where would I be rooted? I was born on the outskirts of the ancient cathedral city of Gloucester. I used to walk the same fields and hills as the poet and composer Ivor Gurney. Gurney died in 1937 in a mental hospital,  longing for the familiar fields of Gloucestershire. Helen Thomas, the widow of the poet Edward Thomas, who had been killed in the First World War, visited him. She took Edward’s maps of Gloucestershire and they traced their fingers over the routes Edward had walked. “He spent that hour in re-visiting his beloved home, in spotting a village or a track, a hill or a wood and seeing it all in his mind’s eye, a mental vision sharper and more actual for his heightened intensity.”

Even that long ago, Gurney lamented the loss of the Gloucestershire he loved. Today, I have no longing to re-root myself in the place of my birth. There are no humans there now that I know, and the landscape is unrecognisable. In The Enigma of Arrival V.S. Naipaul wrote of “a movement between all the continents”. It could no longer be confined to a single paradigm (post-colonialism, internationalism, globalism, world literature). Naipaul’s long-suffering wife was educated at Denmark Road High School for Girls in Gloucester. I have many fond memories of Denmark Road girls. Naipaul was living in Gloucester when he wrote the book. He hated the place.

 

In A Prayer for my Daughter, Yeats wrote:

 

“O may she live like some green laurel
Rooted in one dear perpetual place.”

 

Philip Larkin demythologises the romantic idea of a rooted sense of place:

 

“Nothing, like something, happens anywhere”.

 

I lived for many years in Manchester and then in London. I had many happy times in both great cities, enjoying the wide diversity of cultural amenities they offered. Life in London became too expensive, as it was government policy to restrict inward migration of poor people and to encourage kleptocratic Russian exiles to increase house prices beyond the reach of ordinary people. I moved to Ireland and took Irish citizenship. I felt a sense of returning home and I still have family in the birthplace of my father. However, the cliché of Irish welcome did not always manifest itself in reality. My wife felt a pull towards the land of her birth.

 

Sri Lankan editors have often encouraged me to write about Sri Lanka from a foreigner’s perspective. I recognise that this can be fraught with danger. The problem is that if I respond to requests to make wry and humorous observations about Sri Lankan life and mores some might, however sensitive and cautious I might be, find what I write condescending or arrogant.

 

The first article I published in this country elicited this e-mail: “You crazed Irish monkey, you deserve to be in an asylum or a zoo. No wonder the Tigers are strong in your area if it is home to an IRA fugitive like you. I am reporting you to the authorities”.

On Groundviews, some said I had no  right to be commenting on Sri Lanka because I am not a citizen of Sri Lanka. Those questioning my right to write fall into two camps. Some  see me as anti-government. One accused me of “regurgitating terrorist propaganda” when I discussed Tamil grievances. One commenter (who now describes my work as excellent) repeatedly asserted that I had been sent to Sri Lanka by sinister forces to undermine the nation. Most critics describe me as a government stooge or lackey. Emil van der Poorten even went so far as to call for me to be “silenced”. Some say that I cannot write about Sri Lanka because I live here. Only people living abroad could have the necessary detachment and absence of fear of the government.

It is usually unwise for a stranger to intervene in a fight between husband and wife. Similarly, the exile should avoid taking a partisan stance in the domestic politics of his host country. I do not write about Sri Lankan politics very often. I have avoided publishing anything at all about the recent Geneva resolution.

 

This is the dilemma of the exile. As a guest in Sri Lanka, I do not want to attack or defend the government. I certainly do not think I have a responsibility to attack the government. On the other hand, I want to write about the country because it is where I live. Everybody has to live somewhere. Mr van der Poorten exiled himself to Canada for many years and even went into politics in that country. He has returned to his homeland and has no compunction about finding fault with it. No-one silenced him in either country.

 

Exiles was James Joyce’s only play.  WB Yeats rejected it for production by the Abbey Theatre. The play was given its first production in 1919 in Munich, on the commendation of the novelist  Stefan Zweig. Its first major London performance was in 1970, when Harold Pinter directed it at the Mermaid Theatre. When Exiles was revived at the London National Theatre in 2005, Edna O’Brien wrote that it was “a work freighted with jealousy and the ogre of betrayal. He had many enemies, but chief among them were his former drinking cronies, Oliver St John Gogarty and Vincent Cosgrave. Both bore him malice because he had left Ireland”. There is a whiff of betrayal about being an exile. Joyce declared his aim of forging the conscience of his race using the tools of “silence, exile and cunning”. I am not so ambitious but try in a modest way to make a difference in my local community.

Dylan Thomas wrote of his time in the seaside town of Laugharne (model for Lareggub in Under Milk Wood): “though very much still a foreigner, I am hardly ever stoned in the streets anymore, and can claim to be able to call several of the inhabitants, and a few of the herons, by their Christian names.” I did experience some hostile glances when I first came to this village but now, after nine years, my roots are firm and I get smiles everywhere I go.

 

In his essay Reflections on Exile Edward Said wrote: “It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted. … The achievements of exile are permanently undermined by the loss of something left behind forever.”

 

Many Sri Lankans have two homes, spending part of the year in Sri Lanka and part of the year abroad. Some of them remind me of Baudelaire’s prose poem N’Importe ou hors du monde. “Life is a hospital where each person is trying to change beds. One of them would like to suffer near the heater; another thinks he could get better near the window”.  When they are in Sri Lanka, they wish they were abroad. When they are abroad, they wish they were in Sri Lanka.

 

A Sri Lankan once asked me what I missed about my former life. I missed live jazz at the Band on the Wall in Manchester, but I can listen to jazz at home. I missed seasons of classic movies at the National Film Theatre. I can arrange my own movie seasons with DVDs from Majestic City. I miss the long summer evenings of County Cork and the Murphy’s stout, but I can enjoy a Lion Lager watching the fire flies. I miss McVitie’s plain chocolate digestives. I miss walnut oil. I once got a bit tearful listening to John Spillane singing The Land You Love the Best. None of this is life-threatening.

 

Bob Dylan sang, “Pity the poor immigrant/ Who wishes he would have stayed home”.  Don’t pity me, Bob. Whatever about my unhealable outsider-dom (I will never be a fan of contemporary cricket, I will never be fluent in Sinhala or Tamil) my lights are on and I am at home. Bless me, it is nearly eight years since I last left Sri Lanka. England and Ireland are unreal to me now. I have no desire to go anywhere.

Openshaw Poems

URBAN RENEWAL

It’s a jungle out there.

Jungle sounds.

The damp echoing of a diesel’s klaxon.

Feline hiss of wet tyres.

It’s a jungle out there.

The pocked yard fills with oily pools.

A distant, unidentifiable irritant

Like a dentist’s unceasing drill.

 

A night like an aching tooth.

 

An eighty-year old woman is dying

In a state of siege.

Her body shrinks,

Eroded by insidious

Winds of time.

Her spirit dissolves

Imperceptibly into fog.

 

It’s a jungle out there.

Outside, a derelict wilderness

Gestates predatory creatures.

Loose bricks that once formed the homes

Of friends and family,

(Now dead or dispersed

In the diaspora of the downtrodden,

Disappeared by council decrees

Into spanking new slums in the sky)

Thud against her door

In the long threat

Of the night.

 

GHOSTS

 

A dog’s body

Is deficient for the challenge

Of a charging bus

And becomes mere matter

For the flies to kiss.

 

Mind over matter.

A dogsbody in the wireworks

Was crushed to matter

Under a toppled crane.

He didn’t matter to anyone much.

They didn’t mind

Getting another from the labour exchange

Didn’t mind sending some flowers.

 

The “purveyor of fine meats”

“Is pleased to meet you,

And has meat to please you”.

An ultra-violet insect repeller

Hums and gives out a purple glow

Like an undertaker’s neon sign.

A bluebottle settles with a

Cyclorrhaphous

Languor on a lamb carcass.

Among dripping cadavers of cows

And smaller pieces of mutilated animals

The butcher reads in his news paper

Of carnage and mayhem in Ireland

And frowns.

 

Reflections of derelict houses

Mingle with sample headstones

In the funeral director’s window.

He’ll always do a good trade here.

Old people steal

From  the social to put money by

To be respectably buried.

 

Crepuscular purple light

Casts a mortuary pallor

On crumbling streets,

Where generations of spirits were stunted.

Strips of brown wallpaper

Flap in the spiteful twilight.

A dead armchair still bears the greasy

Imprint of some Brylcreamed pate

That now may be a hollow skull

Growing weeds.

 

Green weeds and dandelions

Sprout stubbornly

Where hungry childhood died into vicious

Querulous old age.

Human spirits become carrion

For voracious vegetation.

What a carry on!

 

How do they carry on?

Why do they carry on?

 

The street names here

Give a frisson if you have read

Beyond Belief.

Years ago, when there was some kind of life

In these houses,

Hindley and Brady trod these pavements,

Carrying in their minds

The unthinkable,

Seeking children to torture.

Do the ghosts of their victims

Socialise with the factory-maimed?

Do they compare and contrast

The respectable and bureaucratic

Mutilations

With the perversion that sickens us all?

 

RELICS

 

Old stomachs rumble

Behind watchchains.

Time is buried in linty recesses

Of brown serge.

Old minds, stifled

In shiny brown wallpaper

Fade beneath flat caps.

 

On Thursday morning

The pillar box

Is so certainly scarlet

Outside the Post Office.

Old women, pension books

Slimmer by another order,

Arthritically finger their change,

Reckoning the chances

Of buying one more week.

 

WAKES WEEK

 

Throughout this first day of almost summer

They have poured out of their

Dark and dusty terraces.

 

In Abbey Hey park

The old and the halt,

The wage slaves and the petty clerks,

The jobless and the feckless,

Have tried to enjoy

The blue but airless sky.

 

In Abbey Hey park

Young women on leave from Atora,

Tresses lank from their work,

Faces pustuled from the suet

Usurping their sebum,

Broiled gently under the low flame of the sun.

 

A young mother in a short skirt,

Exposed shins mottled and marbled,

Brindled like brawn

By her winter fires.

She hoped the sun’s blessing would heal

Her flesh, erase the purplish yellow

Shadow about her cheekbone.

 

Pale sandy- haired children have

Smeared their faces

With Mr Softee

And fingered the old dog turds

Baked white in the sunshine.

 

In Abbey Hey park

Hennaed women offered

Varicose veins in benediction

To the heavens.

 

The sun is a glob

Of phlegm

Hawked westward from the

Rubber works

Slithering down

The greasy sky

Over the suet factory.

 

 

As the sun sets

In the mad alien fire of the

Polluted sky,

Women’s bodies sweaty and glowing

From the heat of a long day,

Freed from imprisoning foundation

Garments flounder and slide

Across plastic sofas

Draped with laddered tights.

Laughing hips flop

In defiance of loosened girdles.

 

As the sun descends to its nadir

In the now infernal sky,

Dentures are abandoned

To swim or sink

In pint mugs of water.

They grin back at their owners

In a rictus saying, “You’ve got to laugh”;

And “Mustn’t grumble”;

And”Tomorrow’s another day”;

And “As long as you’ve got your health”;

And “You don’t have to be mad to work here”;

And “We’ll all be pushing up daisies one day”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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