Are these Planks Going?
11th May 2016
Charles Barrie Crescent
I was one of the last residents of The Crescents in Hulme to leave; I was anticipating that if I dug my heels into its flaky concrete, the council would eventually sigh and give me a nice house on the Merseybank Estate, and close to my brother Pin‘s house in Chorlton. The Council kept offering me a small flat in a high rise in miles-away Miles Platting with half a lavatory. However, the small print in the relocation bumph loved me: it stated that because I was to be re-homed against my wishes, any abode the Council offered me had to have at least the same amenities and features as my current address. My flat had two floors, two lavs, a front and back balcony, and lots of rooms. The Council would never have allocated a single tenant such a splendid residence anywhere else in Manchester.
My Flat was the Bottom Left
I kept blandly insisting on either the Town Hall or a house in Merseybank. My neighbour demanded the same. The Council were no doubt hoping that as The Crescents‘ population decreased they would increasingly be visited by looters and arsonists and people-haters out for the day, and the last few sticky beasts such as me would succumb to fear and flee up the stairs of that high rise in Miles Platting – the lifts not working. I did have a few tricky moments in those last few months with visitors to the area who wished me ill.
Other than my immediate neighbour, the only person I knew who was frustrating the Council with excessive demands was a little tubby Middle-Eastern chap who lived a dozen or so yellow doors along from me, and who during our first conversation asked if I had noticed him previously, and when I said I had, asked me if I thought he had got balder. I always called him Mr Sir because that was what he always called me and it‘s a wonderful name and I wanted to have as much fun saying it as he must be. He would stop me with graceful gestures while saying such as, “Ooh hello to you Mr Sir wonderful day would you lovely to step through to my small home all within for you deeply fine tea from my own too far away land.” I never did cross into his dark-scented darkness: he was after my arse, and I was concerned my refusal to lend it might have spoilt our pleasure in exchanging our more and more ornate daily greetings. After all he was one of my, by then, very few neighbours. I believe he was the last tenant to leave the Crescents, and was definitely the last to leave ours – Charles Barrie Crescent – which was the last of the four to be pulled down. I think when I finally went I was joint-third to last. The reason Mr Sir was the last to leave, was that the council were renting him four of the by then vandalised garages on the ground floor. The bods at the local Council Offices, a year or two earlier, amazed that any one would want one, never mind four, had rented them for a mere £4 a week, and crucially he was up to date with the payments. Now they had to find him a house with four garages. He would accept nothing less, was politely, floridly adamant. His big brown eyes widened innocently – perhaps they could build him one?
A few months later when I was living on the Merseybank Estate I saw Mr Sir at a bus stop, pulled up, leaned over Oz, wound down the window, and then, about to advance an extravagant wish for the wonderfulness of his health, I noted he had two black eyes, a less obviously nose-like nose, and his head wasn’t bobbing with the fluid geniality I remembered because of a neck brace. It seemed that the last resident of probably all the Crescents had left his flat for the last time with the last two cases of his belongings and was on his last and sweetly thoughtful descent of the stairs when he also became the last resident of the Crescents to be mugged. I forgot to ask about the garages.
Officialdom, Wary of the Wild Ways of some Hulme Inhabitants
My next-door neighbour and I had been nearly as persistent as Mr Sir, if less ambitious. We received grumpy, polite threatening letters. We were told it was impossible that we would be given nice houses in a nice place. Officialdom, wary of the wild ways of some Hulme inhabitants, never actually visited. Most difficult for me and my next-door neighbour was being called in to be interviewed by the same person on the same afternoon. My neighbour looked a lot like me – if you looked hard at him. He had a light beard whereas I was freshly shaved; he wore tinted glasses and a lot of clothes, which made him look fatter than me, as did his soft cushion of a belly; he wasn’t taller than me – he was just wore old-fashioned, stack-heeled boots; his voice was similar to mine, although not pitched as highly, but his South London working-class accent was very different to my Home Counties one; he was taciturn, a bit stooped – I was chatty and at ease; my hair was reddish and cut neatly short, and I was bare headed, whereas he had long dark hair hanging from under a bobble hat. It takes a wig collection to save a plank collection.
The Third-Best Plank Collection
It was also the Council‘s responsibility to physically relocate tenants and their possessions. Osbornes, a local company, had won the contract; the Council paid them £100 to move a household regardless of the effort and time involved. Osbornes were well ahead on the deal as a lot of Hulme‘s inhabitants were light on actual stuff, and more interested in short-lived perishables. I remember skinny Tyrone perched in the front of an Osbornes‘ van with a carrier bag full of empties on his knee – the Hulme supermarket had closed down and he was hoping to cash them in somewhere near his new address.
A small blue Osbornes van drew up outside the back window of my flat and two oldish smallish fellows knocked on my door, exchanged greetings with me, glanced briefly inside, grinned, asked to borrow my phone, then rang H.Q. to explain they‘d need the big lorry and all the blokes, including Sam, and the three of us went back outside and had tea on the walkway where there was room for everyone to raise a cup of tea at the same time rather than take turns.
The supervisor turned up. He looked as if he always looked tired and as if supervising wasn’t doing him any good. The two smallish oldish fellows grinned like schoolboys.
“This is it,” one of them announced unnecessarily: the door was open and piled-up fullness was apparent.
“That‘s him,” the other fellow added, and as unnecessarily, as I was the only other person for miles and was stood by the open door. I wanted to grin like a schoolboy myself, but had decided to wear a while longer my I-am-just-like-you-only-I-own-more-wood face. The supervisor‘s face looked to be experiencing perplexity tiptoeing into dismay.
He sought to arrest this unpleasant motion with a question, the shaky delivery of which betrayed its putter‘s suspicion of its likely usefullness – it hardly needs its question mark.
“Are these planks going?”
“Oh yes.” I said, standing close to him.
The old schoolboys sniggered.
“But why would anyone want– ” He stopped; he had noticed that I now wore a new face, an only-wood-is-good face, and that I was dressed like a man who took his planks everywhere -- I was making sure. I still have the grey lederhosen and the big brown felt hat and, three addresses and thirty years later, I can see some of those planks from here .
He tried again. “All of them?”
“Oh yes.” I beamed at him.
“I don’t know...” he said.
I was suddenly concerned that he might have found a clear spot in his dismay and be nearly about to think, then object, that many of the planks were infested with a variety of sharp stuck-out nails, ancient and rusty; also, some planks were darkly sticky with what might have been tar. Splinters seemed likely. I‘m sure all this constituted a health hazard. So I put my arm around him, lightly but friendly. That always works. He took a few steps away, nodded, said okay, went.
I was now in the company of six more fellows, all of them bigger and younger than the two small shortish old schoolboys who now were grinning with the pleasure of having been first to the scene and welcoming the newcomers.
Sam said – it was obvious he was Sam – “Ah fuck. I could do with a decent bit of work. Lets get on with it. He stripped to his vest. Some of his muscles made room for others, and he took hold off the fair-sized metal chest I keep my metal collection in, squeaked it a little sideways but not upwards, smiled at it‘s unassuming heavyness, and hoisted it with a grunt onto a shoulder; off it went to the big blue lorry. The other movers boasted cheerfully about Sam and shrugged on their gloves.
It took eight fellows two and a half days to move my possessions – five loads in the biggest lorry they’d got. Inspired by Sam they worked hard and cheerfully. Sam took a liking to me because I was an artist and he did a bit of art himself – “good stuff, proper,” said his mates – and unlike most customers I was happy to lift stuff myself (I loved lifting and moving stuff – I had dragged and carried hundreds of those planks miles to my flat) and was useful with a kettle. Also, I rarely asked them to ‘be careful with that‘ and never tutted. And I was moving a lot of stuff in my own car.
So they were more awed and amused than irked, to discover that the collection of planks they had seen from the doorway and that had filled my front downstairs room, and they had just emptied, was not my best collection, nor my biggest. That filled all of the back left downstairs room except for the area given over to my log collection. They fined me eight teas and got on with it, Sam hardest, They did stop to report on and laugh at H.Q.‘s frequent telephoned inquiries as to the proximity of the end. We didn’t see the supervisor again but I was told he rang the council offices for their opinion on his obligation, legally, to move a huge rock. And they would stop to ask, ‘is this going?‘ or are these going?‘ and to chide me. The answer was almost always yes, usually with some explication and encouragement attached such as "Oh yes they are very important. That‘s my bollard collection. Not as heavy as they look, actually. More tea?" Watching eight workmen disappear down a stairwell each clutching at least six dirty but still colourful teddy bears was warming, and has become one of my most comfortable memories. Towards the end of the move they discovered my wig collection and selected Friar Tuck style wigs with tonsures, most of them ginger, for the last few loads. Here is a picture of the bollards I mentioned wearing a selection of the wigs.
A Bollard in a Wig
The safe took a long time, and levers, and back straightening, and grunting, and discussion, to get it out and down the stairwell, as did the big rock.
That rock had already been moved once – from our first flat at 149 Charles Barry Crescent. We had needed a rock because that flat had been both empty and even much colder than the one I was being re-housed from. All the flats were cold: the window frames had begrudging relationships with the windows, agreeing to just about hold on to them. Someone told me the panels of concrete that mainly comprised a Crescent didn’t fit each other properly; clearly the wind had heard the same. But 149 was much colder because it was on the ground floor with an open space underneath it, and was at the end of a walkway next to the stairs, so had the cold as a neighbour on three of its four walls. It had no carpets, no curtains and the walls were mostly bare or painted concrete, except, almost sarcastically, in the living room, where the friends we had inherited the house from had lined two walls with a poster designed for a bill board advertising Marlborough cigarettes poster that showed a hot and hazy desert scene. And in those days the pubs were shut at odd, long times. We coped. We had a television, duvets and blankets, and a pallet for putting a thermos of tea on. We sat on the sofa under the bedding, drank tea and watched The Sweeney with our feet on the pallet. Our only concern slowly revealed itself to the inside of our wooly-hatted heads: the insufficient height of the pallet; every time one of leaned forward to reach for the Thermos he inevitably pulled the covers from the other and our slowly accumulated warmth was lost. Also, the pallet wasn’t far enough off the ground for us to achieve proper, horizontal slump: we were forced into a twenty-to-two position rather than the desired fourteen to three, or even a little later. We decided to keep an eye open for a better coffee table. Pin and I have always had a passion for perfection.
The rock was spotted – I think by Pin – one night on the way back from the White Horse, and praised as potentially an ideal pallet-raiser. I immediately worried that it might not be there in the morning, so suggested we should set to transferring it without ado. Pin, drunker yet more sensible, said that it had probably been there for years and we had only just noticed it and it would probably still be there in the morning. It took all the next afternoon to worry it into the flat. It loved the ground and would not completely leave it, but was drag-and-pushable, six inches or so at a time. As we dragged and pushed it along the path we wondered how we would get it up the stairs. At the foot of the stairs we eventually discovered it was tippable and – as long as we stayed mostly underneath it – up-pushable-slidable, although shiveringly scared of heights, and constantly seeking to return to the ground at the bottom of the stairs, and stonily indifferent to crushing us on the way. People frowned or smiled at us, then used a different stairwell. Anyway, moving it kept us warm.
We knew it was a stupid thing to do, but knew life is stupid. The trouble I have caused myself has always been when I have misplaced the conclusion that life is stupid.
The pallet wouldn’t sit nicely on the rock. Not on either side of the rock. It wobbled. A boot or anything much placed on the pallet caused it to tip or slide. We wrestled the rock onto the pallet and life was perfect. We slumped on the sofa in the big empty cold room and we were warm at a lovely angle and tea was only a twitch away of an extended arm. Most of the conversation for the next few days was about how lucky we had been and how we were lovely and warm.
Rock on a Pallet
We got back from visiting our parents for Christmas to a mat of letters from Pin‘s bank. No-goods had pinched his bank cards.
A tall policeman in mufti came round to the flat. I think he was a Detective Sergeant. He was friendly and sympathetic to our plight. We invited him to sit down, but there was no other seating than the sofa and he chose not to swaddle under the covers with us; it probably was a bit too small for three. He said that he was happy to stand, and strode about our big empty room – probably to keep warm as much as anything – passing us smiley, innocuous questions about our lives and hardly mentioning the missing bank cards. He was answered honestly, but the most important thing in our lives was that me and Pin should keep each other in a state of gentle amusement, and he didn’t seem able to find a way to share in it; we were not rude, but specialised in obscure and unquestionable answers. A few days later in the Police Station, as the policeman gradually, begrudgingly – and at times nastily – realised we couldn’t be guilty as we had definitely been in a different part of the country to the bank cards and all the night clubs they had been used in, and that none of the many flashy pairs of shoes that had been bought with them were in our sizes, and noticed how disgusted we (interviewed separately) were by the thought of entering those nightclubs in those shoes with women who would wish to wear those dresses and that jewellery and those other shoes, it became obvious to Pin and I that he had been confident of our guilt from the start, and had only been able to stand trying to be nice, by promising himself he would be sincerely horrible to us after he had tricked us into admitting that guilt.
But that was later. So there he was in our un-livable living-room trying to be nice when he wasn’t and didn’t think we were, dissembling irritation and running out of nice things to say. Again, he looked around our our room, but as I have written, it was short on conversation pieces. He was obviously a clever fellow, but while not yet floundering, was starting to fidget. Then he saw that the rock was a rock. He asked what the rock was for. I looked at the rock and so did Pin. The Policeman hadn’t wanted a cup of tea and the rock was bare. Pin and me had adjusted to the rock‘s presence by then, but the policeman mentioning it gave me a nice warm feeling and reminded me how deeply pleased I still was by the rock. I replied to his question, “To stop the pallet flying away.”
He said he‘d better be off then; his farewell was curter than his greeting.
“Is that going?” asked one of the movers, pointing at my rock.
“Oh yes. It‘s got great sentimental value.”
“Sam!” he called.
My phone rang. I smiled at a mover. We knew who it would be. They were missing the big blue lorry. Someone said that they’d hoped we would be finished by now – particularly as they they wanted to get on with moving my neighbour. The main reason that the supervisor‘s estimate of how long and how many loads it would take to empty my flat was being constantly extended, was that unknown to them they were also emptying my neighbour‘s flat and he had a valuable plank collection of his own. However, my neighbour had already thought about the similarity of his flat‘s contents to those of his neighbour‘s, and that it would be the same chaps doing the moving, and the difficulty of being distant and gruff to them when they were so nice and friendly – oh and lots of things…. that accent – and they‘d seen all the wigs, and he‘d decided it would be best to inform the Council he wouldn’t need help moving; he had just forgotten to ring them. So he did and gruffly said he‘d move his stuff himself, and not long after one of the movers mentioned that it looked like we we‘d be all right with the lorry for a bit longer.
My neighbour‘s flat had once been Pins. We had decided it would be nice to have a flat each. When we had squatted Pin and I had deliberately selected a pair of flats that shared a back balcony as we didn’t wish to be burgled, and knew the easiest way to burgle a flat in the Crescents was to have already broken into one, and then to break through the flimsy, asbestos fire-wall that separated that flat‘s half of the back balcony from the flat next door‘s half; kicking it in and connecting our flats had been one of our first pleasures. Pin had done well with his clothes business and long since bought the house in Chorlton that I mentioned a couple of dozen paragraphs back. My current neighbour had taken over his tenancy.
The way to my balcony was through what would have been the upstairs back bedroom in most flats but in mine was through a timber-clad room containing a throne composed mainly of railway sleepers. One evening,after the chaps had left for teas and pubs, and most of that night I transferred planks and bears and suchlike from next door via the balcony and filled up the throne room. “How much stuff have you got in that bloomin‘ throne room?” was the sort of question I was asked a few times the next day as I lugged down stairs such as a nice, resiny-smelling, pitch-pine roof-truss I‘d saved from a falling-over Victorian factory by the canal. I‘d asked them not to go into the throne-room as I hadn’t de-sanctified it yet, and being agreeable chaps they’d agreed.
I left the big stuff from next door until last. In the morning, tired, I informed the removal chaps that the throne-room was now de-sanctified (one chap asked, a shade nervously, “Are you sure?”) and asked if they would care to help empty it.
“Strewth,” was the first chap‘s response on entering. “I thought you said you‘d been emptying this room all afternoon.” It was full. Finally underneath all that stuff he mentioned, was the throne made mainly of railway sleepers.
The next day, the last, the first chap in said, “I‘m sure it wasn’t as full as this when we left it yesterday.”
“That‘s it, I promise,” I said.
“You got that kettle on yet?” he said.
I couldn’t bring myself to strip the throne-room of it‘s timbers and left it to brief regal solitude and a violent future. On my last walk away from my flat I wasn’t mugged, but I did pick up a dog that was hiding in what was rumoured to be some sort of heating shaft – if it was, it had never worked, at least not in the fifteen or so years I‘d lived there.