Years turn to days, hours turn to minutes, time rushes by. In May 2014, on a trip along the Macclesfield Canal to some old familiar places, I found myself at Bosley, inside the cottage that had once been home. It had been thirty two years since I last closed the front door and headed south, expecting never to return. Invited across the threshold by the kindly Phylis, it was an odd and unsettling experience.
Immediately I returned to Northumberland I wrote to the good lady including some old images of the cottage and a few memories of our time above the Cheshire Plain – on a clear day, from the main bedroom window, Jodrell Bank’s Lovell Telescope is visible nine miles due west, glistening and listening intently to the stars.
Sadly, I recently learned that Phylis had passed away and the cottage sold. My letter had been kept and given to the immediate neighbours who in turn passed it to the new owners, Jane and her partner. In turn, Jane emailed me wanting to know more about my time in her new home and so here we are. Words build bridges, words make connections.
I have struggled to understand what was so unsettling about sitting simply in those rooms again. Perhaps it was this – I was back where the future was unknown, back where there was still the possibility of different outcomes. I could have changed, I could have become someone else, instead I stayed the same …
… ultimately I am a person who can do evil. I never consciously tried to hurt anyone, yet good intentions notwithstanding, when necessity demanded, I could become completely self-centred, even cruel. I was the kind of person who could, using some plausible excuse, inflict on a person I cared for, a wound that would never heal.
Haruki Murakami, South of the Border, West of the Sun
My ‘plausible excuse’ was alcohol. This was the late 1970s when pub culture thrived. Pubs provided a social centre, an easy means to connect with the locals. They were not restaurants with separate tables, they were a place to congregate at the bar, talk and drink. In a short space of time, me and my ‘walking companion’, Kerry the Irish Setter, had developed a wide circle of drinking companions. After her romp across the fields, a tug from the lead implored me in through the front door where Kerry had also developed a taste for beer. Invariably a weather beaten farmer would let her lick the top off his pint, not realising she had recently been partaking of her other passion – licking cowpats.
On good terms with Jim the landlord and his wife Mavis, the Queens Arms became a second home, it was just too convenient. When the snows came in January ’79 and stayed for weeks at a time, there were endless lock-ins and drinking to the small hours, safe in the knowledge that the law would not be making surprise calls.
The Queens Arms was a Boddingtons pub and in those far-off days the Cream of Manchester was produced at their independent brewery adjacent to Strangeways prison. A golden ale with a creamy head, it did not journey far. When the drays called, the Queens and the Knot Inn at Rushton Spencer, two miles further on, were as far south as the kegs travelled.
Inconveniently, John Boddington, one of the family board members, lived down the road near Rudyard Lake and would occasionally drop in to check up on this southern outpost. Forelocks were tugged, free ale supplied and overly polite conversation ensued. All was usually well.
The Queens was a tied house with no option to sell beers or lagers from any other brewery but Jim liked a bit of colour. Along the top shelf he proudly displayed a long line of cans featuring the Lager Lovelies, produced by Tennents. In those non-PC times it was acceptable to promote drink with buxom wenches, a different girl with every can you bought. John Boddington was a tall man and it wasn’t long before Janet, Jane, Heather, Pauline et al invaded his peripheral vision.
“That won’t do Jim, that won’t do at all”
They’re only for display John, purely decorative; I assure you, purely decorative; definitely not for sale”
It still won’t do Jim, it still won’t do”
Nothing more was said. That night we drank the lot, toasted Mr Boddington and for one night only, abandoned the Cream of Manchester.
If I had limited myself to the Queens it wouldn’t have been so bad but there was lunch time drinking too, at a time when many large employers provided access to bars on site and failing that, there was always the option of a healthy walk – to the nearest pub. Invariably, a quick one on the way home also never went amiss; it never occurred to me I might have a problem. Afterall, everyone I knew did the same, everyone I knew was a drinker. This went on for years and it is only when you stop that you realise where you have been.
Alcohol affects people differently. For me it bred restlessness and an unerring sense of discontent. Pauline, on the other hand, just turned nasty but that’s another story.