Episode 08: Lancaster Interlude

I felt increasingly isolated in Manchester, and lacked confidence in the future. One weekend I was in Grasmere to visit my appropriately-named bibulous godfather, Johnny Walker. As he didn’t have a phone I found a call-box, dialled 0, asked the operator for Bardon Mill 236, pressed button A, and poured out my woes. My father suggested I become a teacher. I jumped at the opportunity, handed in my notice at Gorton and wrote away for the prospectuses of numerous teacher training colleges.

My father’s headmastership abrupted ended just at that time. He fell out with his partner and resigned, taking considerable debts with him. Joining the family in Lancaster, where my father taught at the Grammar School for the summer term, I earned what seemed to me the princely sum of £7 a week selling ice creams next to the pier on Morecambe beach. All day a loudspeaker blared out live Wurlitzer-accompanied comedy shows. I made up for the lack of customers that wet summer by ruining my teeth! More usefully I read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

At the swimming pool I met the frighteningly forward fifteen-year-old Sheelagh. She went to the Catholic school opposite our house, and after school she would come to Morecambe to visit me at work. We would walk along the promenade awkwardly holding hands. Once, when her parents were out, she took me to her council house and unnecessarily told her younger sister not to peek.

We stayed in Lancaster just long enough to see the Ashton Memorial, a landmark above the town, go up in flames. Shortly afterwards we moved to Watford. Never one to do things the easy way, I shunned the direct train to Watford Junction, travelling instead from the long-since defunct Lancaster Green Ayre, via Leeds, to London St Pancras.

From Euston I joined teeming rush-hour commuters on a more austere successor to those Oelikon carriages. Through the window I watched in awe as steam engines, billowing great plumes of smoke, hurried into and out of Camden tunnels drawing important-looking maroon express trains. I felt I’d arrived at the hub of the universe.

I asked the ticket collector at Watford High Street the way to the Rose and Crown Hotel where we were staying that first sweltering night. ‘Rosencrantz?’ he queried. So began a forty-year association with the town which some ill-informed people consider the last outpost of civilisation before the benighted North.

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