1986 seems like another era; I had big hair, we owned a British Leyland Metro, Spitting Image was still on TV and we moved to Preston in Lancashire. Along with fashions, the pattern of the communities in our cities have also altered many times since those days. As a young couple with a tiny baby and two cats, living away from our home town and our respective families, we moved into a 19th century brick-built terraced house in a row of similar terraced houses. This was our stomping ground for two years before we became upwardly mobile and moved to a more spacious semi-detached house.
These Lancashire terraced streets are still there and continue to provide great housing for families. Our small terrace had two downstairs rooms and upstairs a double bedroom, two single bedrooms and a small bathroom. Along the side of the house was a narrow alley that went underneath our upstairs rooms and that we shared with our neighbour. This gave us access to the back yard and garden and was where we stored ladders and bikes.
In the 1980s we weren’t on our journey to financial independence, our priority was keeping our heads above water. We were a single-income family with a mortgage on a house that had cost us £15,000 [you now need almost this much for a deposit on these properties]. Our terraced row of houses felt crowded but comfortable. Along with our neighbours, none of us were wealthy; here was the wonderful diversity of what might be called the working classes, all struggling to make ends meet. Although our family income came from a ‘professional’ job at the university, this is where we could afford to live.
To one side lived a couple with one child. He had worked as a jockey, riding horses, as a young man but was now a butcher, both fascinating worlds I knew little about. She was an outgoing hairdresser, working in a city centre salon. On her day off she styled the hair of the neighbours in their homes, including me, giving us mates rates. While we lived next door their marriage broke down and she began working evenings in a Preston nightclub for extra income as a pole dancer, another world I knew little about.
To our other side lived a couple with two children, a family living on the single income of his manual job. It was this mum that was usually the parent that would offer to sit on the front step and watch her own children play in the street during the early evening, along with those of neighbours. If the weather was fine I would often join her for a while with the baby and sitting on our respective steps we would talk generally about family news, the best schools and favourite TV programmes. It was on these steps that I was informed that the best local primary school was the Roman Catholic school; I mentioned that we were atheists but she didn’t really grasp why that would mean this school wasn’t suitable for our little one.
During the daytime the street was a place for women and young children, all the men were at work and my early lessons in bringing up a child came from these women. The street was lived in by families that were white-British but we were on the edges of more diverse areas of Preston and nearby there were shops that sold exotic fruit and vegetables that I enjoyed exploring. At the end of the street, in the 20th century social housing, was a Muslim woman with children. She was divorced, somewhat unusual in her community, and this single status sadly led to bullying by people who shared her religion; she needed a friend and sometimes I listened.
Just around the corner were an elderly couple, long-time residents of the area. On warm afternoons he liked to bring a dining chair outside his tiny two-up-two-down terraced house and sit and chat to anyone who came by. I walked by his house to the local shops and into town, always carrying our baby in a papoose, and would stop for a while. He told me funny and interesting stories of his days as an engineer building bridges on the M6. Life seemed to be slower in those days in this corner of Preston and people had time to talk.
Another family across the road had a son who was difficult to manage, he was often aggressive and sometimes violent. He was removed from home and sent to the local children’s home that was unfortunately just 100 metres away. He continued to return home and scream loudly outside his family home and once he broke a window while everyone along our street cowered indoors, no one trying to help. In these narrow streets there is nowhere to hide and the family’s shame was a burden they carried, knowing the next day that everyone was talking about them.
On the corner of the road was the vicarage. The vicar and his friendly wife had four children and were considered the middle-class residents of the street. Quizzing me about how many more children we would have, I told her, ‘One is enough.’ She failed to persuade me that a big family was the way to go. Their house was an enormous rambling property surrounded by a garden and easily swallowed their large family and the numerous visitors they happily entertained.
I have said before I have a literal mind and so when I learnt there was a Mums and Toddler Group nearby [these would now be called a play group or parent and toddler group] I understood the term precisely and didn’t attend until our son was actually toddling at 11 months old. I laughed when I was told I didn’t have to wait until he could walk! The group was held twice a week in a draughty and dismal church hall with a selection of old toys for the children to play with and tea and biscuits for the mums / parents. In this unpromising environment, there was no sense of competitive parenting and everyone was supportive and helpful and I learnt more child-rearing skills. It was here that I met parents who shared my love of reading, cooking good food, an interest in environmentalism and fellow atheists who recommended the local county primary school. I made some firm friends here and the plan to move a short distance away to a bigger house began.
The narrow terraced streets are still there and probably still lived in by hard-working families. The vicar no longer lives at the end of the road and the extensive garden is now a car park, the social housing has been improved. The corner shop has gone, along with the telephone box where we would ring distant family and friends as we didn’t have a home phone. Traffic has increased everywhere and I doubt if I walked here on a sunny evening I would still see parents sitting on the steps watching their children playing in the street but then again …