Harold Evans remembers growing up in Lowry's Manchester
The Tate gallery's wonderful, if belated, exhibition of the work of L.S. Lowry evokes bitter-sweet memories of growing up in his landscape of mill chimneys and two-up, two-down terraced houses spotted with pubs, churches and corner shops and sooty relics of the industrial revolution. Somehow or other in the vast urban sprawl of Manchester and Salford, without a blade of grass, still less village greens or grand town squares, people coalesced into little neighbourly communities. On our move from Patricroft to Failsworth, my mother started a little grocery out of our front parlour and the new neighbours sprang to her aid against competition from the mighty Co-op.
The warmth is not what strikes a viewer of Lowry's work. He populated his fine architectural drawings with crowds of figures, anonymous in black, invariably bent forward against the adversities of northern life. Coal fires in every home and the thousands of tall, smoky chimneys – we could count 40 from our backyard – condemned Lancastrians to five times the national rate of bronchitis. When I got to know Lowry in the fifties, interviewing him at his home for the upstart Granada television, it was borne in on me how much he empathised with 'the folk'. It was his dying regret, according to the critic John Heilpern, that having declined all sorts of honours, he was never offered the one he would have treasured: being named a freeman of the city he forever embedded in our imaginations.
Lowry's The Steps at Wick (1937), one of the paintings of his Bonhams is offering for sale this autumn, made an indelible impression on me. On the pavement below the daunting rows of broad steps rising to a smoky plateau, you'll see an urchin in short trousers pushing a crude handcart propelled on a couple of old baby carriage wheels. I'd be nearly ten then. There's a small lifeless figure in the pushcart, so I guess it must be around November 5th, the time of year when my brother, Fred, and I would stuff old newspapers into a discarded suit of Dad's, stick a coloured mask and floppy bonnet on the biggest turnip we could find, and take turns pushing the dummy around Lowry's streets chanting, "please to remember the Fifth of November". The fifth, of course, was the date of the gunpowder plot of November 1605 when our effigy, Guy Fawkes, was discovered in a cellar of the House of Lords intent on blowing up Parliament. I can't say the folks in our street seethed with resentment about Captain Guy, but they cheerfully coughed up "a penny for the Guy" to enable us to buy fireworks for his immolation.
The streets were central to the lives of youngsters like me. We'd line up for a weekly treat seeing Bob Hope and the Three Stooges at the local Palace cinema, never miss the adventures of Bob Cherry at Greyfriars public school in The Magnet magazine, but most of the fun was homemade: marbles, yo-yos, hop scotch (at which the girls were better), whipping a spinning top, bowling a hoop, cricket under a gas lamp with tennis ball, the lamppost for a wicket.
Lowry was not confined to the streets. I relish his single portraits of another Manchester I knew: the smug grammar school boy in his crested cap, the bowler-hatted Manchester man who'd made money, I guess, in cotton, and Ann, Lowry's severely beautiful companion.
But the big occasions were communal like Bonfire Night and the Whitsun walks, football matches and the greyhound races where Dad won enough to take us on an annual week at the seaside. We were addicted to street parties. Both ends of a street would be blocked to traffic, easy enough when none of the inhabitants had a car. Long tables with freshly ironed tablecloths overflowed with meat pies and sausage rolls hot out of household ovens, followed by jellies and lashings of ice cream. In Lowry's print, VE Day party (1946), his people, proud of victory, have lost the humps. They stand tall. Easter was also special. Every year across north Manchester, thousands trekked to Daisy Nook where Silcock Brothers set up a fairground with tents and stalls. Lowry must have enjoyed himself with his oil Good Friday, Daisy Nook (1946). He exuberantly packed in more people than I ever saw at the fair. No doubt, folk liked trying to identify themselves. I can see myself as the urchin in his The Steps at Wick. If the way I described his painting gives the impression it's my pushcart, forgive it as a little deceptive mischief of the kind in which our hero indulged.
Sir Harold Evans was Editor of The Sunday Times from 1967-1981. He founded Conde Nast Traveller, and among his many books is the much acclaimed The Paper Chase.