As a small child, after my dad bought a car, we used to go on various jaunts and, of course, to visit our grandparents in the nearby towns. I would be slumped in the back after an evening at my Grandma’s house in Little Hulton, full of prawns and salad cream and Tunnocks teacakes as a general rule. My grandmothers were not great cooks, it must be said, a fact brought about by World War and a lack of ingredients rather than a lack of skill. My grandmother’s go-to family tea was a table groaning with celery sticks, iceberg lettuce, prawns, tinned ham and salmon all to be drowned in the tangy vinegar splendour of salad cream. There would be butter to slather over crusty bread though never when it was ‘too new’. My grandmother had an odd dislike of fresh bread. There would be pop, a beverage which she always referred to as ‘mineral’. Cream soda and dandelion and burdock were my favourites. Tea. There was always a pot of tea and white tea cups.
We didn’t always have tea there. Often we just drove over for an hour or two to visit. My paternal grandparents lived nearer, eventually moving to live at the bottom of the road and we would also ‘pop’ in there, my dad reading the Bury Times as my grandma attempted to out talk the budgie, Joey. Other times we would be in the car returning from a trip to the cinema or the theatre, Bolton Octagon being a favoured haunt of my childhood.
As we drove up Heap Brow, a steep incline towards home, there would be a small road sign stating that in that direction, pointy bit indicating right, we would find ourselves firstly in Pilsworth and then Indian East. We never turned towards Indian East, our route lay with a left turn towards home.
I would always look out for this sign and on my more daydreamy evenings I would ponder what Indian East might be like. I didn’t know anyone at school who lived there. And when we had travelled that route sometimes there was nothing very interesting, some fields, the warehouses and yards of the industrial estate and a lone pub, whitewalled and stranded. I would forget about the existence of Indian East then, taken up with the view from the car window and thinking of other daydreamy things. Only when we passed the sign did I recall ‘Oh yes…Indian East. I must have missed it.’.
It was a shining beacon of a place, harbouring all my childish hopes for a town. Green space and old buildings, possibly half-timbered, on wilder days they had turrets. The streets of Indian East would be higgledy-piggledy and you had to walk there because if you drove, well, as the years rolled by it appeared to me that the road broke its promise and seemed not to take you there. There must be a turn off that I missed. There was magic in this idea, that this place could only be reached on foot. It was hidden from view. It was quiet, the silence only broken by the song of birds, the whirr of a lawnmower, someone singing as they hung out the washing. The Indian aspect of its name puzzled me. There were plenty of Indian ladies in Bury. They clacked around the market in their glittery golden sandals, their jewel like saris bundled under heavy winter wool coats. Occasionally you might glimpse a soft, brownskinned midriff as a lady bent to tend to her grandchild in a pushchair. They were colourful, like fairies to my child self. They had long hair, plaited like Rapunzel and elaborate earrings.
Perhaps, I thought, Indian East is like that. Everywhere in Indian East is colourful and gilded. I had an idea that there were boats, something like a gondola, which might transport people along the River Roach from the centre of Bury. If there were unicorns then you’d find them in the stables at Indian East. Fires there were obviously lit by dragons.
Food of choice in Indian East would be cake, Battenburg probably because it had the colour scheme. I had it all worked out. An eco-system all to itself; it would be sunny in Indian East when it was not in Heywood. They had a lot of thunderstorms too, when the sky would turn bruise black. My favoured weather system. They also had more snow, ten feet deep at least when ours was only slush because Indian East was hidden in a valley, hence its lack of visibility from any of the major roads.
One day, I thought, when I’ve passed my driving test, I will drive to Indian East. Clearly we never got there because my dad was never driving there, we were always heading elsewhere, even when we turned in the direction of Indian East. We were on our way to Pilsworth Road or out towards Heaton Park.
One afternoon in the 1980s the truth of Indian East was revealed to me. It was, literally, a revelation. As a child I had read the sign, very clearly, from my seat in the back of the car. Indian East. I had never questioned my interpretation of this road sign. The words had conjured up the place, with its every last letterbox. I had no reason not to believe in the existence of Indian East. It was on a road sign. They didn’t make road signs to places that did not exist. I had built a city on the back of my reading skills.
I was having driving lessons by then, scooting around the environs of our town in Mr Purvis’s Mini Metro and we stopped at a junction on Pilsworth Road. Mr Purvis gave his usual careful instructions; he was a Geordie man, very patient. As he imparted driving knowledge I looked up at the road sign in front of me. There were two places listed. Bury, right and to the left Ind. Est.
Wait a moment. Ind. Est?
I looked around, at the warehouses, the tarmacced yards and drives, the high security fencing and the sets of traffic lights that Mr Purvis liked us to practice going through, junction after filter after cross hatched junction.
In one moment a city fell. The spangled ladies of Indian East vanished in their market coats, shooed into the gondolas and skiffs by the burly chested security guard from Industrial Estate. They had no place here, no place anywhere. The sign had never read ‘Indian East’ at all except to my childish eyes and I had never corrected the mistake.
To say I was heartbroken, would not be hyperbole.
I stalled the car. Mr Purvis waited patiently, puffing on his hundredth cigarette as I sorted my gears and started the engine.
At this time of year I am sometimes pursued by a black dog. There have been years when there has been a pack of them, unruly and barking.
It used to be that I was afraid of the black dog but that made it worse, there was a mental frenzy of trying to dodge it and the more I dodged Black, the more legs he sprouted to trip me up, until, finally, he was in fact Sleipnir the Dog, born of Loki and Greyfriars’ Bobby no doubt.
Over the years I have learnt to whistle for Black, because that way he must come to heel and I am in charge. I can offer him small treats, a little stress here, so sinewy and chewy, over there I can lob him a little melancholy shadow for him to settle into. But that way I manage him. I see the lowering of the lights and know that his paws will pad towards me. The rustle of the leaves as they fall from the trees disguises the panting of his bone-strewn breath.
He’s a mythic beast. His fur is thick and dark as the night terrors, inked in with all my woes and griefs over the years. He is not a welcome companion but at least he is no stranger. I wrangle him nowadays and realise that as well as bringing all the griefs back for me to pick over and spill tears on, he can also take those troubles and upsets that have gathered. I can load him up as I reach to ruffle around his shaggy neck. He licks them from my hand, snaffles them from the floor where I drop them.
If there comes a moment when he snarls and I know that he will turn on me, that I will be not devoured but savaged, bitten, wounded, then I must find an escape. This, is the only time I ride a horse.
Long ago, when I was at university at Warwick, my mum and dad arrived for a visit and we visited Ragley Hall. There was a stable block and, unusually for a stately home, there was in fact a horse in it. Only when you have seen a horse in a stable like that do you have a true idea of the power of the horse. It was a wild, whirling thing caught behind wooden planks and wrought bars. The scent was strong but the energy of the beast was stronger, you could almost hear its heart thudding. It made a nickering sound, low and rumbly and in the distance another horse whinnied out in reply. The horse in the stable listened, ears pricking and with a rearing motion that hinted at a possibility that it might escape up through the ceiling, the horse let out a neigh. The sound was vast, a wave washing around myself and my dad, silencing us both. I have never forgotten it.
This is the memory I use if Black decides to misbehave. With his jaws snarling with the past, with the worry and doubt and anxiety dripping from his teeth I lift my head and ask Horse to come out of the wood.
Horse arrives, heavyhoofed and wild eyed. My fingers clutch at mane and I lift my mental self up and out of the landscape, the rhythm of hooves, the smell of horse as he rises, up, up into a starlit sky to where there is nothing but breath and forged iron.
On Radio 4 in recent weeks they have been asking the question ‘Can robots take over your job?’ and I’ve been wondering.
Asimov was the first to think about this and make laws for the legion of mechanical beings who might, if we’re not careful, rule the earth. Robot, the noun, is Czech, taken from the word ‘robota’ or ‘forced labour’ so they’re already on a loser. Sci-fi has not helped what with Hal and his obsession with airlock security and the mayhem that was Dark Star. In more recent days there has been the Will Smith epic ‘I Robot’. Need I draw further attention to the perilous shenanigans of the Fembots in Austin Powers?
They ask a lot. Robots. They make us question ourselves and our idea of our own importance. We’re already being overtaken, not all robots have a face. There are the self-service slave tills in your supermarkets and, during my library tenure, members of staff were regularly replaced by the RFID machines.
Can they do my job? Probably. I’m churning out words and we’ve tried the monkeys and the typewriters so why not give the Bots a quill and some ink. There is bound to be some science nerd somewhere coming up with an algorithm for the imagination, the creation of story.
They were talking this evening about the 3D printing of houses, curvy modern buildings that Kevin McCloud no doubt drools over. The engineer being interviewed commented that we haven’t changed our building methods since Roman times and won’t it be lovely when the builders don’t have to stand out in the cold in their high-vis vests, instead they can be indoors operating the 3D printers.
Maybe that is so. It depends upon the builder. I think that if someone wants to be in a factory operating a printer then they might have chosen that kind of career path. There will be brickies and roofers the length and breadth of the country who love their work, who like to be in a trench or drylining a luxury flat. They don’t want to be indoors, they enjoy their skill.
At the library it was depressing to me that we were told to push people towards the RFID and not deal with them personally. In the face of government cuts and austerity the big push has been towards a reduction of staff. Let the machines do it. Along the way the idea was forgotten, or perhaps dismissed, that many people come into the library in order to interact with a human, some people are lonely or isolated and they wanted to come in and rant about the inadequacy of the seafaring adventure novels on offer.
That said there were plenty of library employees only too happy to be excused from dealing with the great unwashed British public.
No preparation is being made for this Industrial Revolution Part II so perhaps we ought to look back to history and consider; the desperate violence of the Luddites, the starvation of the handloom weavers because, in the end, the people at the top only care about the people at the top. No one is looking downward and seeing trouble, they can be replaced, these serfs and servants and slaves. They don’t care now and they won’t care then when they can ditch everyone and make better profits because they no longer have to pay a Living Wage to a workforce of Golems, written into life with software and electricity.
It might be wonderful, this robot utopia. It might be that the government brings in the Universal Income where everyone is given a sum of money to live on regardless of means. We all get a base income of say £12,000, the figure currently bandied about. With the freedom from labour offered by robots we all have time to concentrate on the things we love to do rather than those that must be done to pay the bills. We can open a petting zoo or take up watercolour painting. We can spend that time with our family at last and take care of our own children. We might find a different and better meaning for life, one that is not circumscribed by status anxiety about the fact that we never did make it to CEO. We might, in the shadow of the robots, remember what it is to be human.