Paul Barker on a bridge in Hebdon
Published: 24 May, 2012
by GERALD ISAAMAN
Paul Barker admits he wrote the introduction to his new book about his hometown of Hebden Bridge before the content itself – it’s usually done the other way round – with the result that a friend remarked that the two bear no relation to each other.
“This present book is an exploration,” Paul explains. “I have always been intrigued by what it means to talk of the ‘sense of place’. At the heart of this isn’t the buildings, however beautiful or bizarre they may be. The point is the people who lived there once, and live there now.”
You understand his depth of emotion when he declares: “Hebden is ‘my’ place. The place I have the sharpest sense of belonging. I spent the first 18 years of my life here.”
This ensures that his story of life in Hebden Bridge is a truly compelling piece of social history to which all your sensibilities will surrender. Simon Jenkins has described Barker’s tale of the death and rebirth of Hebden Bridge as “a classic in the making. It wonderfully evokes the life of one small town, past and present.”
Paul’s book is a poignant tribute to the cradle of his birth from which he duly escaped to university, thanks partly to two enlightened headmasters.
What is all the more amazing is his revelation of how the blackened mill town, where “work, work, work” was the only arbiter in survival – along with the Co-op and chapels – was fantastically transformed into “the fourth funkiest place on the planet” (according to a British Airways flight magazine).
Hebden Bridge has been both applauded and derided. It is “the little town that time forgot”, as well as “Suicide Central”, the “Greenwich Village of the North” and “the lesbian capital of Britain”. How did it happen?
Paul was given time off in the late-1970s from his formidable editorship of the now lost magazine New Society to delve into his past, compiling 41 recordings with families he and his wife Sally grew up alongside.
He learned how the loss of the textile mills, the weaving sheds, silk shops, blanket factory and farms had decimated the population, reducing to half its original 6,000.
He pinpointed the collapse to the closure of the Co-op, in 1967, when the manager was jailed for four years for fraud, and young squatters from Bradford, Manchester and Leeds, many of them art students, took over the empty houses, living on benefits and scorned by the working-class natives.
Conflict followed but, inevitably, the new breed of seekers brought revival – and new enterprise – to decaying terraces.
Hebden Bridge is where his father ran the fish and chip shop and Paul, like many people of the town, grew up in a house without books or recognition when he did well at school.
Now 74 and enjoying the wisdom of experience, he reveals the pain of a martinet father who threw his library book on the fire when he found him reading while eating at table.
He found it impossible to have a warm relationship with a father who couldn’t enjoy having a drink with his son in the pub, and insisted “you won’t want to talk to us any more” when he went off to Brasenose College, Oxford.
He moved to London to take up a post at The Times (his supportive local bank manager thought he meant the Hebden newspaper) and first lived in a flat in Stepney.
The Barkers bought a £6,700 slum in Patshull Road, Kentish Town, in 1966, making them one of only three “colonists” there, together with Labour MP Bill Rodgers and a civil servant.
With a growing family of four children, they subsequently sold for £90,000 in 1982 after gentrification took hold.
“I saw Kentish Town first on a trolley bus and thought I’d never live in such a dismal place,” he told me. From his new home in Dartmouth Park he can remember the squatter battles in the streets of Kentish Town and nearby Tolmers Square, all echoing Hebden’s saga.
He remains quietly satisfied that his book, though not the academic study he intended, is a valuable patchwork of history and personal memoir.
And he is almost embarrassed that it has been recognised for the powerful authority of its social treasures.
Indeed, a friend confessed he “found it so moving he even felt rather weepy”, which gives a significant clue to its remarkable impact.
The wonder is there when Paul writes about the nightmare effect of walking the untamed lanes below Mount Skip, Hebden’s highest hill, the delights of climbing Daisy Bank, the girl who dried her hair by putting it in the mangle and the lad who caught larks in the landscape that gave birth to Ted Hughes, the late poet laureate.
Nobody is likely to verify the boast that there are more acres in Yorkshire than words in the Bible, but it’s a bloody good story, which is exactly what Paul Barker has so brilliantly and beautifully given us.
• Hebden Bridge: A Sense of Belonging. By Paul Barker. Frances Lincoln, £16.99