Saturday, 5 March 2011

Rossendale - A town called malice

As you grow up you tend to go through waves of events that mark the progress through life of friends and family. 18th and 21st Birthday parties slowly become weddings and in turn (or maybe out of turn) Christenings and landmark birthday celebrations. These events become the only times when you see people who you once considered good friends,  mates you once saw almost every night of the week. However life has a habit of getting in the way and opportunities to meet become fewer.

I remember my Grandad talking regularly about attending the funerals of his friends. He was a cheery, humorous fellow who liked a drink and relished the post funeral buffet as much as he lamented the loss of lifelong pals. The latest bereavement always seemed to hit him hard but was counterbalanced by the prospect of a pork pie and a few pints with his ever diminishing circle of friends. I guess that's where it all inevitably ends up for all of us. Thankfully I'm not at that point yet but I do seem to be attending a lot of 40th birthday parties just now, so I suppose for me and my circle of friends we're all approaching half time in the great football match of life.

Last night I went to one of my oldest pals 40th birthday party at a Rugby club in a borough called Rossendale where I grew up. I lived there from birth until my late twenties, so for well over half of my life so far. I don't go back very often other than to visit family though I still have a fondness for the place that I guess will never leave me.

Rossendale or more specifically the town of Rawtenstall where I lived, is in many ways a place that time forgot, a former cotton mill town dotted with dark brooding satanic mills, most now converted into apartments or stuffed with office workers. It is a place known to most people only for it's artificial ski slope perched precariously on the side of a hill so steep as to make the experience unreasonably dangerous.

Thanks to a long history of successively inept councils, there has been no obvious planning control or long term approach to maintaining any specific look, feel or continuity. On the contrary buildings, housing estates, shops, pubs have all sprouted up and taken root like ugly weeds in an unkempt garden. Years of industrial soot has been fixed to the walls by rain and stained the older buildings black contrasting with the ugly sand coloured brick beloved of developers in the 70's and 80's which tends to sport a permanent sheen of damp thanks to the drizzly micro-climate of the Pennines.

When I grew up there, it had a thriving though slightly gritty nightlife where people escaped their working class humdrum lives by ploughing their entire weekly wages back into a wide variety of pubs and clubs throughout the valley. Each town in Rossendale had its own nightlife, each subtly different and more dangerous than the next. Today most of those hostelries lie empty and boarded up or half empty, awaiting their eventual fate like a diseased lung betrayed by the smoking ban. Honourable attempts to diversify into restaurants and wine bars temporarily litter the streets awaiting their turn to be replaced by the latest ill fated venture aimed at a demographic that doesn't even live there.

Its once thriving high streets and shopping precinct are now derelict and Beirut like. Their purpose has been displaced by a series of increasingly bizarre supermarkets (think Tesco's & Asda but designed by Salvador Dali) and the once thriving town centre now lies literally in ruins awaiting long overdue decisions by a council, rightly labelled one of the worst in the country. Here and there are dotted pockets of enterprise like the butchers and delicatessen in nearby Crawshawbooth, which successfully serves a wide catchment area crying out for superior local produce.

However, most of the population seemingly prefer or feel forced to travel to one of the aforementioned supermarkets where they accompany their trolleys up the fantastically weird escalators to the top floor of the supermarket perched clumsily on top of one of the nearby hills. A few short miles away an equally strange supermarket perched atop a different hill forces shoppers to take their trolleys down a similar escalator. It really is worth a visit just to wonder what they were thinking of when they built these places.

The town that I grew up in is dead now, it has changed beyond recognition slowly choked of all life by the morons responsible for guarding its welfare. Thankfully, the people I grew up with are alive and well, sardonic and sarcastic to such an extent that you could be forgiven for thinking those qualities and traits were invented in Rossendale. They seek (and find) humour in the sheer idiocy of the fate of their town, rejoice in past memories and discuss how expensive their taxi journeys were for nights out in bigger nearby towns that would once have been considered a foreign excursion.

Nights like last night are always bittersweet for me. I have known Iasi since we were both four years old and it was great to celebrate 40 years of such a legendary friend. I also always find it life affirming to catch up with old friends and reminisce over old times. There is never a shortage of laughter in Rossendale, unfortunately it is usually at it's own expense. An oft repeated phrase is 'it couldn't get any worse' , but sadly each time I return, it has.

For me, leaving is always a more pleasant experience than arriving in Rossendale as the version I grew up in is gone and I don't want it's memory eroded by what it has become, the living embodiment of a song I grew up adoring - The Specials 'Ghost Town'.

I'm pretty sure that some residents of Rossendale reading this blog would feel aggrieved and perhaps let down by my portrayal of their town. Fair enough, though any anger may be better directed at the self serving bureaucrats that betrayed them in the first place.  

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