Sue Fox reflects on her hometown connections with the author Howard Jacobson.
The writer, Howard Jacobson, who is older and much cleverer than me acquired his sense of humour in North Manchester. He grew up streets away from our Prestwich home, in Bowker Vale. It now has a MetroLink Station on the route from Piccadilly in the centre of town, all the way to Bury, which was once a Saxon stronghold. “Bowker” seems to have been a chiefly Manchester name for someone whose job was to steep cotton linen in lye to cleanse it. That makes sense for a Cotton Town. “Vale” is short for Valle so maybe, long long ago, before we moved in, it was all very green and romantic. I’d like to think so.
I interviewed Howard with his brother for The Sunday Times Magazine‘s Relative Values series, and also for the Hometown column in the Saturday Times Magazine. About Prestwich, he said, poetically, “There was a depressing greyness about the place – a feeling that the sky was so low you could touch it. I couldn’t imagine my future under that kind of sky.” Neither could I. Howard called Prestwich “A village which seemed to have been stuck on the end of North Manchester.” We both shared a secret. The famous writer and I had grown up in a place synonymous with the mental asylum that bears its name. He shuddered. “Prestwich Hospital was a chilling presence in all our lives and I’ve often wanted to write about it.”
My title for a book about the place of my childhood might be, “This Hospital has No A & E Department”. The warning was printed on the large NHS sign at the gate. I passed it on the bus to school. No point in turning up there if you had your arm in a tourniquet. Amongst the many patients inside the hospital was my grandmother’s sister who, I learned, had been there for years. Long time widowed, she never had children. Despite several siblings and their families, she had nowhere else to live. An aunt said the poor woman used to imagine seeing her dead husband all the time. She was probably just heartbroken. There were many long term “patients” – like my great aunt – incarcerated in Prestwich Hospital who should never have been there.
Howard Jacobson passed the 11-plus and went to Stand Grammar Boys School. A few years later, I went to Stand Girls School. Our paths never crossed. The first published piece I ever wrote was in Serviam, our school Magazine which took the title from the Latin motto, Sto Ut Serviam – We Stand to Serve. My Fourth Form contribution showed no obvious signs of writing talent. It was a dull as ditchwater report of the Jewish Girls’ visit to Stand Church. Just as boring as it sounds. The writer of the Christian girls’ visit to a couple of synagogues was, by contrast, packed with imagery, interest and quotes. She was a Fifth Former.
When I was 55 I went to a school reunion in what had become a mixed comprehensive. The formerly huge and imposing School Hall with plaques to War Dead and names of past head girls, was to my much older self, ordinary and small. My oldest school friend (she was still living in Manchester, migrating South after getting married) walked into the hall. An English teacher shouted, “Girls I have your A level results.” I had left before A levels and couldn’t remember anyone. Perhaps I didn’t want to. It was a hall too full of ghosts.
When Howard Jacobson was at Cambridge, he returned to Prestwich and a summer job selling ice cream. “Heaton Park became for me a scene of embarrassment. I was based at the Rochdale depot, delivering orders to the park cafe, wearing a yellow overall with an ice cream logo on the front. I was ashamed to meet friends.”
My shame – possibly in the year when Howard returned to Cambridge from his humiliating summer job – was also connected to Heaton Park. Growing up, major anxiety was wondering if my father’s always limited funds would stretch to a new winter coat or suit. It was important that whatever the temperature, I could take part in the traditional fashion parade in Heaton Park at Rosh Hashanah – The Jewish New Year which usually happens in September. Oh, the embarrassment of wearing last year’s outfit to the boating lake. Photographs of the time – towards the end of the fifties, my friends and I looked 40 years old. We were barely into our teens.
On May 31, 1982,Pope John Paul celebrated Mass in Heaton Park, where a crowd of over 250,000 were there to welcome him. Howard Jacobson is 79. He has written a memoir to be published in March. Prestwich will be famous.