IN THE mid-1980s, when I did Saturday shifts for the News of the World in Manchester, production was disrupted as a result of the Wapping dispute. With the offices in Withy Grove, near Victoria station, being picketed we decamped the short distance to the Black Lubyanka, as the Daily Express and Star HQ was known.
Built in 1939, it was an imposing Art Deco glass structure, in stark contrast to the shabby streets behind it, and in 1974 became one of the youngest buildings in Britain to receive Grade II listed status.
Beautiful downtown Ancoats featured many bomb sites where you could leave your car without parking charges, although there was only a slim chance it would still be there when you got back. It was home to an army of hatchet-faced prostitutes, muggers, purveyors of stolen goods and other ne’er-do-wells, along with a profusion of pubs ranging from former gin palaces to street-corner dives.
I asked one of the office messengers where the best pint was to be had, and he instantly replied: ‘The Hammer’. This was the nickname of the Smith’s Arms, on Sherratt Street, a three-storey affair built in the 18th century and the oldest boozer in Ancoats. Given directions through the slum, I eventually found myself at the bar nursing a pint of, if memory serves, Tetley’s Bitter.
Chatting up the landlady, as was my wont, I airily declared: ‘They said the Hammer served the best pint in Manchester and they were right.’ She curled her lip and replied: ‘You’re in the wrong pub, sonny. The Hammer is round the corner. Now sup up and f*ck off.’
Tail between legs, I slunk off to find the real Hammer and got stuck in to some excellent Burtonwood ale. I visited it a further couple of times before our Ancoats sojourn ended and remember it fondly.
The whole area would later be bulldozed to make way for yuppie apartments, with the Hammer torn down in 2016 to the dismay of campaigners including Mike Joyce, drummer with the rock band The Smiths.
Another Ancoats pub visited during the Wapping diaspora and since to have bitten the dust was the Jolly Angler in Ducie Street, between Great Ancoats Street and Piccadilly station. My friend and colleague Tom McCarthy and I paid a visit one Saturday lunchtime after being enticed by an entry in the Camra Good Beer Guide which described it as ‘a canalside inn with an interesting collection of pictures’.
We expected a rustic hostelry with outside tables from which to observe passing barges and exchange pleasantries with their owners. In fact it was a down-at-heel two-room effort whose canal view comprised abandoned prams and supermarket trolleys, dead dogs, rusting fridges and, floating in the murky water, Salford salmon, as used condoms were known in those parts. The picture gallery was a sellotaped-together photograph montage of customers pulling faces, flashing V-signs or baring their arses. Evidence of twinkling-eyed fishermen was there none.
Tom and I were the only customers and were treated like long-lost friends by the landlord. He plied us with pints of Hyde’s bitter (extremely moreish) and asked if we wanted lunch. This turned out to be home-made lamb broth, which was superb if a little pricey at 15p a bowl. We returned months later to be greeted with the words: ‘Right, lads, the usual?’
By 2021, Ancoats was being hailed as one of the ‘world’s coolest neighbourhoods’ for its ‘magical blend of past and present’ and with a restaurant which won Manchester its first Michelin star in 40 years. I somehow doubt if it serves lamb broth at 15p a pop.
Look back in admiration
WITHOUT doubt my most treasured volumes of autobiography are John Osborne’s A Better Class of Person and Almost a Gentleman. They are brilliant, angry, vicious and wickedly funny, sparing no one from the playwright’s venomous pen. His savage attack in the second book on his late wife Jill Bennett, whom he nicknamed Adolf, still astonishes me.
‘Her frigidity was almost total. She loathed men and pretended to love women, whom she hated even more. She was at ease only in the company of homosexuals, whom she also despised but whose narcissism matched her own. I never heard her say an admiring thing of anyone. Her contempt was so petty and terrible. Everything about her life had been a pernicious confection, a sham.
‘I have only one regret remaining now in this matter of Adolf. It is simply that I was unable to look down on her open coffin and, like that bird in the Book of Tobit, drop a good, large mess in her eye.’
Wow! Say what you mean, John.
My favourite passages are in the first book, with the author recalling in forensic detail his childhood in Fulham and skewering the lower-middle-class pretensions of his mother Nellie Beatrice, nee Grove, whose ailing husband Thomas spent much of his life in sanatoriums. The young John was also sickly and had to undergo regular check-ups at the Brompton Hospital during the 1930s. He was made to take off his shirt on arrival and ‘I would be forced to walk without dawdling around the monastic corridors to my various X-rays and tests, and return to our bench wearing only my shorts with my braces chafing my salt-cellar shoulders. We had nothing to eat all day, as my mother obviously thought that to bring sandwiches or something of the sort would have been a little like munching away during Evensong. She had a reverential, almost mystical attitude towards medicine, an attitude very common at the time, and believed that doctors, exclusively, were the people who drove their own motor cars. If we saw one in the street, she’d say, “Oh look, there’s a car outside. Must be the doctor”.’
He goes on: ‘My mother’s hair was very dark, occasionally hennaed. Her face was a floury dark mask, her eyes were an irritable brown, her ears small, so unlike her father’s (“He’s got Satan’s ears, he has”), her nose surprisingly fine. Her remaining front teeth were large, yellow and strong. Her lips were a scarlet-black sliver covered in some sticky slime named Tahiti or Tattoo, which she bought with all her other make-up from Woolworth’s.’
In 1936, with Osborne’s father in better health and back with his family, they moved to Stoneleigh in Surrey. ‘At this time, houses in places like Stoneleigh cost something in the region of £300 to £600 to buy, but many were rented. My mother was insistent that we should not enter into buying because she didn’t want to be “tied down”. Thirty or forty times during the first seventeen years of my life we wrapped up dozens of china dogs and picture-hatted ladies with straining borzois – bought or won from fairgrounds like Dreamland in Margate – to move into another house or new digs until her snarling, raw-nailed boredom and dissatisfaction exploded again, driving her to make a dash for another lair. “I’m fed up with this dead-and-alive hole”.’
Osborne complains that Nellie Beatrice spent ‘an inordinate time cleaning and polishing’. Every Friday saw the ‘Spring Clean, with mattresses ripped from their beds, curtains taken down, washed and ironed. In the winter, when it was not possible to go outside, the Black Look clouding over the billowing dust bag of the Hoover was inescapable as it thrust its way into every corner, every bed or cupboard, bellowing and bullying a filthy uncomprehending world for hours. Handing over the Hoover to my mother was like distributing highly sophisticated nuclear weapons to an underdeveloped African nation. By early evening she would be almost babbling with fatigue. A breathless interval at midday allowed us to bolt down an egg on mashed potatoes, frenziedly washed up so that she could “get on” for the rest of the afternoon and return everything to its gleaming, dustless place, raped by Mansion Polish and elbow grease, before my father came home from work.’
When A Better Class of Person was published in 1981, Nellie Beatrice was still alive. Heaven knows what she must have thought of her son’s vitriol and yet they remained on speaking terms until her demise. Osborne himself died in 1994, aged 65.
I have read his memoirs many times and they never cease to amaze. Such is their richness that they are best taken in small bites to savour them fully. For me they, rather than plays such as Look Back in Anger, are his outstanding legacy.
Old jokes’ home
Man goes into chemist’s and asks for some deodorant. The female assistant says: ‘Certainly sir, would you like the ball type?’ ‘No,’ he replies, ‘it’s for under my arms.’
A PS from PG
Stiffy was one of those girls who enjoy in equal quantities the gall of an army mule and the calm insouciance of a fish on a slab of ice.
PG Wodehouse: The Code of the Woosters