Anthony Whitehead

An elegy for Oldham

What happened to the lively and multicultural town I grew up in?

An elegy for Oldham
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My home town of Oldham is the sort of place people imagine when they think of ‘The North’. It has mill chimneys, redbrick terraced streets and a rain-swept football ground (the third highest in the country) where supporters of the perpetually struggling Oldham Athletic queue for hot Vimto or a bag of black peas.

Oldham is now the most deprived town in England, according to the Office for National Statistics. Crime and unemployment are high; investment, wages and prospects generally are pitifully low. Boarded-up shops and dilapidated factories tell a sorry tale of economic woe.

It wasn’t always like this. My family’s home, in the leafy suburb of Werneth, was in one of many large houses built around 1900 for the managers of the local textile mills. From the fine mahogany mantelpieces to the art-nouveau fittings, everything was of the best, testimony to the industrial wealth that once coursed through Oldham’s veins. I attended the local grammar school, where the head, a Balliol man, was proud to send a regular cohort of pupils to Oxbridge.

Assessing what has gone wrong is not straightforward, because Oldham — or some of it at least — has always been deprived. Well-heeled as Werneth was, there was still a derelict coal mine just up the road, while at the other end of that same road were slums of real Orwellian squalor. On my way to the sweet shop I could peep through a sooty brick archway into a Lowry-like world of tiny, crumbling homes arranged around a filthy courtyard. Thin, ragged children would play around a central block of outdoor privies. And this was in the 1970s.

By the 1980s, things had improved. The slums had been cleared and replaced by a four-star hotel. The pit became a landscaped park. Clubs playing the new romantics prospered side by side with traditional boozers where old boys in flat caps would spin a yarn in return for a half of mild. Oldham was hardly rich, and it has never been beautiful, but there was an energy about the place. That energy helped the town to thrive, at least relatively speaking, into the early 1990s. Oldham produced the ‘Madchester’ band Inspiral Carpets. Athletic even made it to the Premier League.

And something in this highly textured environment of contrasts seemed to foster individual genius. My local primary nurtured the disparate talents of composer William Walton and the former England football captain David Platt. At my grammar, the DJ Andy Kershaw was in the year above me, and the particle physicist Brian Cox was a few years below — as was the actress Sarah Lancashire. Indeed the place has long been a breeding ground for thespian talent, including Anna Friel, Agyness Deyn, Eric Sykes, Bernard Cribbins and pretty much everyone who has ever been in Coronation Street.

It is telling that none of the above stayed in the town once their stars began to rise. Walton, sent on a scholarship to Oxford, claimed that he was inspired to compose by a desire to stay in the south. ‘I must make myself interesting somehow,’ he said, ‘or I’ll be sent home to Oldham.’

I must admit, I don’t go back much either. As one fellow émigré put it: ‘Oldham these days? It’s like a work camp that’s been struck.’ This is pretty accurate. Textiles and engineering, the town’s former raisons d’être, have fallen victim to globalisation and cheaper imports. Attempts have been made to replace jobs with higher-tech alternatives, but successes are few and clearly not enough.

Tensions rose between the white and Asian communities, culminating in three days of rioting in 2001. Afterwards, promises were made to listen to the concerns of a white community that felt it had been forgotten, and to promote the integration of the increasing Asian population. Sadly though, efforts have been undermined by a fatally muddled approach to urban renewal.

For example, I used to visit a pub on Manchester Road called the Black Horse. It was a rambling place bedecked with colourful Victorian tiles and a great picture on the wall of the Last Supper, in which Christ and his disciples were played by the landlord and his regulars. It was frequented by chalk-faced goths but also by immigrants from Pakistan who would play cards, drink the local bitter and shoot pool. The bar area was popular with the gay crowd, and we all listened to the local blues legend Victor Brox play in the big room at the side. This was multiculturalism — tolerant and unforced.

But the Black Horse was flattened when the junction it stood on was widened. So was the magnificently ornate fire station opposite. Oldham has enough problems without this kind of cultural vandalism, though the resultant dual carriageway does at least provide a rapid exit from the town. On the way out, you can see that most of the pubs that weren’t demolished are now boarded up. You pass through the once-busy suburb of Hollinwood, now divided by the widened road and mostly derelict.

How did it come to this? The planners certainly have a lot to answer for, but the trend towards a stricter form of Islam has not helped either. The corner shops no longer sell bacon, the men do not drink, women are far more likely to wear a jilbab, and for many Muslims interfaith marriage is taboo. Living apart as they do, it is all too easy for whites and Asians to blame each other for their shared economic plight.

Trying to make one community integrate with another is a little like arranged marriage: it can work, but only if other factors are favourable. Poverty, however, is not conducive; nor is the crass destruction of a town’s heritage and identity.

Meanwhile, the planners are at it again. A splurge of new housing is disfiguring the neighbouring Pennine countryside and helping to facilitate white flight on a grand scale. Much of Oldham’s population has fled, leaving the town itself, characterised now as much by mosques as chimneys, to become a ghetto.

As visiting football fans chant: poor old Oldham, poor old Oldham.