10,000 memories in Nelson, Lancashire

Here, the old cotton mill workers recall noise, bullying and hunger. Now, in Asia, a new generation

The streets of the Lancashire mill-towns are full of old people now. If there is a certain melancholy as they look out on to the car parks and rectangles of rubble where weaving sheds and houses stood, this is perhaps because their whole working life was spent in a declining industry.

The house where Ethel and Alan Timberlake live is in the shadow of one of the last mills in Nelson. It closed 18 months ago, and is now being demolished; sunlight comes into the front room for the first time, through the roofless building and its broken windows. "The house used to shake with the vibration from the looms," says Ethel. "It was not very pleasant, but the silence is worse." The mill had the most modern Swiss looms, making industrial uniforms for several airlines and Marks and Spencer. It was taken over by Carrington Viyella, who get the work done more cheaply abroad. The looms went to India.

"We used to make sarees for export to India," recalls Dick Howarth, now in his mid-eighties. "Then, when there were labour shortages, they fetched workers from India and Pakistan. They worked the night-shifts, sleeping in beds turn and turn about, just as the Irish did 100 years ago. Now they are bringing in the material from India and Pakistan. It's hard to make sense of it."

"It's a different world," say the old spinners of Bolton and Oldham, the weavers of Blackburn and Burnley. And for them it is; even though that same world still exists, on the other side, the dark side, of the earth, in the slums of Dhaka and Jakarta. To the former workers of Lancashire it is distant memory now, long confided to oral historians and enclosed in industrial museums. In any case, the pain of loss has been decertified by political gibberish about progress and modernisation. They sit in their front rooms, with tea and home-made victoria sponge and the hiss of the gas fire, surrounded by pictures of grandchildren against a sky-blue background, the bird twittering in its cage, the poinsettia (also from Asia) wilting in the heat. A different world indeed.

Yet the abuses of poverty and overwork linger tenaciously in the minds of the very old; stories that correspond with an aching exactness to the testimony of the young women workers in Dhaka, Jakarta, Mumbai. Their recollections of hunger, cruel overseers, physical chastisement, ruined health and industrial hazards are still commonplace in the industrial suburbs of Asia. The cobbler who gave his children leather to chew in order to appease their hunger would have recognised the plight of the mother in Dhaka, giving her children rags for the same purpose. The women who searched the market stalls on Saturday night, picking up specked oranges and mouldy bananas, might be speaking for the women of Jakarta, scavenging scraps from the trash outside the city's restaurants.

When they tell of foremen who hit the women, made them stand for an hour in the freezing mill-yard if they were late for work, their echoes prefigure the woman in the Dhaka factory, beaten with a chair leg for tangling her threads, the woman dismissed from her job for abandoning her machine when she learnt that her son had been killed. When they speak of the ebb and flow of trade, the long periods on the dole, they anticipate in memory the thousands being laid off each day in the Jakarta of 1998. Olive Sharples, Weavers' Union organiser for 44 years, remembers visiting the sick, many of whom were dying of byssinosis, a then unrecognised respiratory disease that came from long exposure to cotton dust. Now, the workers of Dhaka waste away with TB.

Ethel Timberlake remembers her mother sucking the ends of the cotton through the shuttle - "kissing the shuttle" they called it - the kiss of death, for she died of emphysema at 50. Others tell tales of people who were caught by their hair or a limb in the straps that drove the looms, and were dashed against the ceiling of the shed. The same industrial accidents are reported today, which is scarcely surprising, since some of the same archaic machinery is still in use in the decaying mills of Mumbai, the names Northrop of Blackburn or Platt Brothers of Oldham still embossed in the ancient metal.

The old bring to life not only their own testimony of work, want and struggle, but equally, the experience of people separated from them only by time, different skies, another colour or religion. If it is hard for them to perceive a common destiny, perhaps this is because they are constantly being urged on to a future of undreamed-of technological marvels, to a frantic keeping up with the times - times that demand the same tribute of flesh and blood all over the world, and which the workers of Lancashire paid so recently.

It isn't only the working conditions that join our past with their present. The mill-workers tell how the big stores - Woolworth's, Marks and Spencer - would place an order for fancy handkerchiefs, say. "A small order at first. Then a bigger one. Finally, the whole factory would be given over to the production of one item. Then, when the company was dependent on these orders, the stores would offer less money. The wages of the workers went down, profits dwindled, and in the end, the company closed down."

The beneficiaries of the shift to Asia are deterred from organising by the vast pool of workless, or by the presence of the military, spies and informers, in the factories. Nuri was dismissed in June 1998 for trying to form a union in a sub-contractor to Marks and Spencer in Jakarta. In Dhaka, Rehna Begum was imprisoned with 21 other trade unionists for stealing from the factory; after two years in jail, it was "discovered" that the production manager had stolen the goods. No compensation.

In the industrial zones of Tangerang, Bekasi, Mirpur, Dharavi, you will find all the big names - Walmart, C&A, Levi-Strauss, Great Reaper, Nike. The complaints of the workers might have been compiled in Lancashire: bad ventilation, no work security, compulsory overtime, no health insurance, insufficient rest, being timed going to the lavatory, fines for the smallest mistake, bullying, harassment, being forbidden to sing, talk or laugh.

Dick Howarth and his wife look out into the street; children sit on the wall of a derelict house, the inheritors of the lost function of the mill-town of Padiham, where mills employed the vast majority of its 13,000 people. "Drugs, no secure work, is that better than what we knew?" they ask. Ethel Timberlake tells how a friend, a woman of 54, was raped by a 15-year-old boy. "What have we done to our children? What have we left for the next generation?"

The questions scarcely require answers. How can it not be better than the thousand looms that clattered through the day, leaving a whole generation to lip-read? Better than the smoke from the chimneys of Nelson, "which made it impossible for Hitler to bomb us, because he couldn't see us through the smoke". Better than children crawling under looms to clean them, starting work at age 12, as they do now in South Asia. Better than the room-and-power mills, rented by manufacturers so that they could dismiss all the operatives as soon as trade slackened; just as the management in Dhaka boast that, if workers try to organise, they can sack the whole workforce and recruit a new one within 48 hours.

The old look back with a curious estrangement from their earlier selves - as though they had died and been reincarnated. "We went on holiday to Blackpool. My grandmother filled a tin trunk with cakes and bread she'd baked. Then she came all the way back on Wednesday and filled it up again."

"They used to take all their belongings on holiday. This woman, big fat woman, carrying her canary in a cage, little husband with two huge suitcases. She says to him, 'be careful, we don't want that rupture coming down at Morecambe'."

"We had to call the boss 'Master'. He'd stand at the entrance, push back his billy-cock, and walk through. If he was wearing his blue suit, you knew things were rough, there'd be trouble."

"When they brought in the Clean Air Act, the sheep and sparrows of Nelson all changed colour."

They were part of a great division of labour, in which the work of thousands of hands was co-ordinated into a single industrial machine. Even the words that placed them in the structure are a dead language now - who knows now what a cake-winder was, a deviller, a tackler? "I used to look in the shop windows and see the stuff we'd made. We were pleased. The cotton they sell now, we wouldn't have it as floor-cloths." The last mill in Blackburn that still used the old Lancashire looms made non-washable fabric; material, fittingly, for shrouds.

Sometimes the Lancashire people talk of the people of Asia "stealing our jobs" as though labour had crossed the world like a thief in the night to take away their function as they slept the sleep of exhaustion; as though capital had no role in it; as though desperate migrants to Dhaka or Jakarta, in their shared slum rooms, three metres by three, were the enemies, and not the kin, of the ghosts of country people once driven from impoverished villages into the squalid towns of Lancashire.

"We tried everything to keep the mills open," recalls Olive Sharples. "We organised the Buy British campaign in the sixties. Some companies imported cloth and stamped Made in Accrington on it, but it didn't save them. People feel bitter, they still do. It wasn't till 1980 that we could see it was all finished. We thought if they modernised, at least there'd be some jobs."

The workers of Asia and of Lancashire have one other thing in common; they were never consulted about the setting up of the industry, any more than they were about its closure, but were sucked into it beyond their will, beyond their control. They used to say "I'm not going to let any child of mine go into the mill", but into the mill they went. Then, when there were no mills left, they find themselves asking "Where are the jobs for the next generation coming from?"

There is no answer. The jobs have gone to use up the youth and energies of young people in Asia, just as they laid waste those of generations in Lancashire.