This is the first part of an essay of non-fiction by author and journalist Jeremy Seabrook, the conclusion of which will be published here tomorrow. In Part I, we are transported back by one generation to visit the life the author would have lived, had he been born at a different time. Tomorrow, he takes us back into the nineteenth century, and his days as a ‘ranting cobbler-preacher’.
My mother’s cry rang in my ears from infancy. ‘No child of mine is going into a shoe factory.’ Similar heroics were heard throughout the land then, as parents declared their children ‘too good’ for the mill, the pit or the factory; such brave resolutions coincided with the closure of those sites of labour. My mother was no visionary, but she sensed that the employment from which she was preserving me was doomed. She wanted to take credit for the approaching extinction of the staple industry of our town, as though she had personally closed down the factories, solely to keep her children out of them.
A generation earlier, the main influence on my life would have been those same factories, which used to stand, squat, of blood-red brick, on almost every street corner: dusty windows, the glass of which was frosted, not to prevent passers-by from looking in, but to stop the attention of distracted employees from wandering outwards. Inside, heavy black machinery was served by the work of clickers, who cut the soles and uppers, skivers, makers, finishers, eyeletters; while fragments of discarded leather accumulated on the floor, in which insects and mice made their nests.
Life was marked by the regimented tramp of boots on the pavement in the early morning and again in the green winter dusk, the tang of leather that left its taste in the air, and even entered into food and drink. The work I would never do was tantalizing; and although I had no inclination to do it, it held a sombre seductive power, since in it I could clearly perceive the individual I was spared from becoming. If my mother conceived such a hatred for boot-factories, this was doubtless because her ten surviving siblings had been claimed by them; although this did not prevent them, for the most part, from becoming decent women and men, people who led lives of exemplary honesty and frugality.
My own early work consisted largely in recording the last gasp of their recollections of lives of labour. For years I haunted the slum houses where they had lived, watched as unfit buildings were razed; I re-animated the plain interiors, sketchy amenities and absent comforts with the obdurate, stingy and punishingly self-righteous boot and shoe workers. Surly, parochial and suspicious, they distrusted all orthodoxies. Three times they returned Charles Bradlaugh to parliament after he was expelled for refusing to swear the oath of allegiance on the New Testament; not because they were atheists, but because they thought his representation of them had nothing to do with his religious beliefs or lack of them.
The town of Northampton was a monument to their plain, conserving spirit. Some houses remained almost unaltered from the time of their construction, with little concession to ease or homeliness. Wooden chairs stood around the scrubbed table, a home-made rag-rug on the lino in front of the hearth, a chenille door-hanging danced in the draughts. A single brass faucet, discoloured by verdigris, sent a splashy cone of water into a shallow plaster sink. Coconut matting covered the red flags of the kitchen floor. In the sitting-room, a hard whipcord sofa, greasy from the pressure of arthritic hands; coal-smoke puthered into the room whenever the wind was in the wrong direction. The mantelpiece had a faintly ceremonial function: a clock, a wedding photograph, some brass candlesticks – emblems of a sacred domesticity. The bedrooms, too: austere penitential places, where the inside windowpane blossomed with frost in winter, and the ear of an enamel chamber-pot protruded from beneath beds high and hard, punitive altars for the sacrifice of human sexuality.