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Blackburn: the town that stopped working

In the 1960s, the Lancashire town was a bellwether for the decline of the industrial north – struggling with a wave of migration, a threatened working class and the closure of its mills. Fifty years on, it’s still searching for purpose.

 

Fifty years ago I went to Blackburn to record a series of programmes for the BBC, later published as a book, City Close-Up (1971). Blackburn was part of the early industrialisation of Lancashire; and it was in such towns that the heroic age of labour began to falter. Language reflects this development: with time, “labour” became “employment”, which turned into “work”, and then subsided into “jobs” or “economic activity”. In the process, ethnicity, gender and sexuality overtook social function as a primary determinant of identity.

In the 1960s, the humanity of immigrants was almost invisible in the phenomenon of mass migration. Having worked for many years in south Asia, I returned to Blackburn in 2018 – against a backdrop of fraught
Brexit negotiations and heightened tension over immigration throughout the West – to find out whether a second and third generation regarded the town as “home”. Two Muslim women won seats in the local elections in Blackburn in May 2018. The victory of Saima Afzal and Maryam Batan, the town’s first Asian women councillors, was a progressive triumph in this staunchly Labour but socially conservative town. Both had to overcome resistance. Maryam, instructed by male elders to cover her hair, told me, “A piece of cloth is no indication of my spirituality.”

Saima’s experience has been more brutal: victim of a forced marriage, she never gave consent to what was, in effect, a violation. Virtually captive in Pakistan, and despite the vigilance of her husband’s family, she collected enough money from the deposit on Coca-Cola bottles to buy notepaper and stamps for a letter to her mother in England. A relative bought the ticket with which she fled Pakistan. Pregnant, she resolved to have the baby adopted, but “when I saw him the love poured out of me”. She is now a well-known campaigner against all forms of violence against women. “My job is my life I don’t need to wear the veil. I don’t require external symbols to proclaim who I am. I have learned survival from within.”

These vibrant, committed women were not even born in the 1960s. Then, this mill town was living off bitter memories of its vanished importance in Britain’s industrial glory. Its decline was the more poignant, since in the late 1960s most of Britain was buoyed by optimism created by sustained affluence and new freedoms for women and gay people under Labour’s social reforms.

In 1960s Blackburn, deindustrialisation, with which the rest of the country would catch up 20 years later, was already advanced. The contours of demolished slum housing were still etched into the earth, left to a growth of wild flowers and buddleia; broken glass from abandoned mills reflected jagged pieces of sky; rusty metal and crumbling brick invited elegies on the passing of an industrial way of life long before Margaret Thatcher got to work in the 1980s.

In 1958, Britain became, for the first time in the industrial era, a net importer of cotton goods; and mill closures accelerated in Blackburn. The principal employment is now in health care, education and retail, although Blackburn with Darwen (the local authority area) retains a higher-than-average manufacturing base – about 18 per cent of working people. Employers include Crown Paints, WEC engineering, and a considerable number of Asian entrepreneur firms, especially Euro Garages and Accrol domestic paper products.

Unemployment has always haunted Blackburn, particularly since 1930, when more than half its people were out of work. Today, at 6 per cent, it is still relatively high, while 68.7 per cent of households have at least one economically active member, compared with a higher national average of 78.4.

Appearances were – in the 1960s, as today – deceptive: as well as a local reservoir of humanity, kindness and good humour, there was also a surge of bewilderment and anger at recent migrants from West Pakistan, Gujarat and an East Pakistan about to emerge, bloodily, as the new state of Bangladesh. The outlandish ways of these newcomers, seemingly alien to the tradition of a Lancashire town, attracted a demonising folklore: few local residents had sympathy with strict religious observance, the migration of lone male workers, or subservience of women, although all these had been characteristic of this uncompromising Nonconformist town.

Some things have scarcely changed since the 1960s. Non-white foreigners are still often designated “Pakis” in everyday speech; the inner-city area of Whalley Range is referred to as “Khyber Pass”, or “Casbah”, although bus drivers no longer call this out to indicate the bus stop. The “Barbary Coast” is where the young go to get wasted.

The talk now is of regeneration: Blackburn as a regional centre, an attractively renewed “cathedral quarter”, new bars and restaurants, societies and voluntary organisations. The reshaping of the city centre has been imaginative and effective; as far from the bare geometric obsessions of the 1960s as from the failed restructuring of the 1980s. Although much support for this development has come from the European Union, in the 2016 referendum Blackburn voted 56 per cent to leave.

The tripe shops have gone, along with junk shops selling deal tables and hard Windsor chairs, remnants of 19th-century interiors. There are no more dusty shop windows offering sarsaparilla and Dr Shah’s constipation pills, or pubs with the sepulchral inscription “VAULT” on the glass (the local name for a public bar). But along with the new mall, nail bars, mobile phone and pet-grooming salons there are pound stores and betting, pawn and money shops. Much industrial land has been reclaimed, although expanses of willow and alder mark sites where mills clattered with the deafening rhythms of production. The erasure of the Victorian city continues, though it still dominates the landscape where migrants and their descendants live; more than half the housing stock falls into the lowest council tax band.

In 1979, James Callaghan was prime minister and Barbara Castle the radical Labour MP for Blackburn. Since then, Jack Straw served for 36 years, while Kate Hollern, elected in 2015, became parliamentary private secretary to Jeremy Corbyn last year.

Fifty years ago Blackburn was still suffering the long agony of the textile industry, the shrinking of a town built on cotton and engineering, memories of the violence with which the industrial system had been imposed and anger at its equally brutal dissolution. As a direct consequence, migrants from the Indian subcontinent, whose labour was to prolong – for a brief season – the viability of the cotton industry, had fundamentally altered the social landscape; and the shock of this was still fresh.

 East meets north-west: Shia Muslims perform the matam, a
lamentation, on the streets of Blackburn. Credit: Eduardo Martino/Panos

The reason for Blackburn’s existence as a major cotton town, and its later loss of purpose, took place without consultation, behind the backs of people coerced into an industrial system and then expelled from it. They owed, not merely livelihood, but life itself, to the mills (“We were brought up by the mills”), in a division of labour unintelligible now – dobbers, ring-spinners, beam-graters and winders – and that was already waning before the First World War.

This decline continued during the 1930s and by the 1960s was almost complete. If nostalgia haunts the imagination, this is perhaps because, even when people had created a home in an alien environment
that they never chose, their burgeoning sense of belonging was also unceremoniously swept away.

They were never permitted to grieve for the loss of identity associated with the social function of spinner or weaver, just as the views of agricultural labourers had never been heard on the wasting village economy or enclosure of the commons – which had driven them into what was then the new, raw reality of mill life. A historic democratic deficit hangs over these communities. Social and economic change has never been voluntary: it is simply what happens to people.

The industrial system left its indelible stain: a man remembers his grandmother who made constant spitting noises to get rid of cotton lodged in her throat; a woman echoes the harsh sententious wisdom that “hard work never killed anyone unless it fell on them”. This is familiar local wisdom; almost every family can recall mothers and grandmothers condemned not only to labour in the mills, but also to penitential scrubbing and cleaning to keep at bay the encroachments of soot, dust and smoke.

The most potent reminder of industrial life is the presence today of people of Asian heritage – about 28 per cent of the population of Blackburn with Darwen. In the 1960s, older weavers looked back to a time when children brought babies to the mill to be breastfed by their mothers; juveniles were dismissed when they reached the age at which an adult wage was due; and the threat of bailiff, overseer, poor law administrator and workhouse was ever-present. Now, elderly migrants from the late 1950s and early 1960s tell of shifts that lasted 12 hours and cheap living in houses shared by a dozen men to save money. (This was also resented by locals. One young man said to me in 1969: “They’re all homos. What are all those men doing cooped up together if not shagging each other?” (If he had known his own history, he would have recognised that in the 19th century men also came alone to live in overcrowded lodging houses to save money for families left behind, in Ireland or a rural hinterland.)

If earlier generations had suffered the humiliations of class, these now melancholy elders knew the indignities of racism. In their clouded eyes lies a remembrance of pre-monsoon dust storms, farmland submerged by flooding rivers, grains of rice spread to dry on a bleached wooden veranda and the family mazar, or tomb, on the ancestral land; but they remember too arrival in an unfamiliar climate – social as well as meteorological – a cold, dark atmosphere of sour resentment. If some regarded Britain as a “mother country”, they soon discovered it was severely deficient in parenting skills.

Some have returned to Pakistan, finding not only that their home country has changed unrecognisably but that they too have been altered by experience, and they cannot settle. Zaffer Khan, of the One Voice community organisation, says nevertheless many elders still prefer to be buried in Pakistan rather than Blackburn.

Mohammed Deen, now 85, told me in his comfortable home: “I came in 1969 to join relatives and work as a winder, preparing thread for the looms. Labour was so short, they stood in the street recruiting people who walked past the mill. They paid us to bring friends and relatives from India. We lived ten or 15 in a house; hot-bedding, it was called. My family came three years later. We became poorer then, but at least I had my family under my own eyes.’’

That the present leader of the council, Mohammed Khan, came to Blackburn to work as a “beam-grater” in 1965, is a measure of the transformation of the past half-century. While working, he got a degree at Blackburn College and went to work in the textile industry in Pennsylvania, where, he told me, “Life was luxurious. Britain looked like a backward country.” He returned to Blackburn, where his relatives live, and from where it was easier to reach his native Rawalpindi.

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When I first visited Blackburn, not long after Enoch Powell’s 1968 “rivers of blood” speech, people were still uninhibited in their expression of racism, which had not then differentiated itself from Islamophobia. From time to time, pent-up feeling has erupted politically in the town: three times in the past half-century far-right parties gained council seats – first in 1976, the National Party; in 2002, the British National Party; and in 2006, England First. The media descended, and Blackburn, briefly notorious, duly repented. In following elections the far-right vote was easily crushed by Labour. But suppression is not elimination: subterranean antagonisms emerge now and again, although in Blackburn there have been no riots or public disturbances like the ones in Burnley, Rochdale and other former mill towns. Neither has there been any scandal related to organised grooming in Blackburn.

It would be wrong, however, to assume that the material improvement of the town had not also involved significant psychological change. Popular resentment is more muted now: deeper currents of feeling depend upon an elaborate system of linguistic nods and winks. The phrase “It used to be lovely round here” is code: it never was straightforwardly “lovely” in streets scarred by unemployment, poverty and pawn shops. But – like “Blackburn isn’t Blackburn any more” – these formulaic words have deeper meanings.

Nothing remains static, neither the psyche of the far right (with its hardening story of martyred Englishness), nor the sensibility of third-generation Muslims. In 2007, I met a group of sixth-formers, a majority of whom identified not as British Muslims but as Muslim-British; although they were at pains to say they were “human beings first”. This suggested a considerable mutation from the mentality of early migrants with battered suitcases, baggy “best suits” and respect for a Britain of fair play and tolerance already archaic in the 1960s.

“Twenty years ago,” Firoza Mohmed told me, “you rarely saw a woman in a burqa.” Firoza now works with Humraaz, which provides refuge to BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) women. When she was young she used to sing in the cathedral choir: “I couldn’t imagine that now.” Zaffer Khan of One Voice remembers his family home in the 1980s: a picture of the Queen was displayed next to that of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan: “My father was a patriot and a royalist. This is now rare.” Over time, young people have lost their connection with south Asia, and are no longer fluent in Urdu, Punjabi or Gujarati. But this has not always coincided with a strengthening of bonds to Britain.

The attitude towards Western culture is, in any case, ambivalent. Sex, alcohol and football both repel and attract. For some who cleave to their faith, the vacuum created by the loss of Indian or Pakistani roots, as Zaffer Khan observes, draws them into an alternative Arabic culture – a more austere version of Islam than was ever found in the fertile soil of south Asia. This should not be exaggerated: there is, in Islam, as in all cultures and faiths, a continuum, from indifferent to observant, from pious to orthodox, from devout to conservative, before it even remotely approaches the fundamentalist or extreme; and even these terms do not necessarily connote violence or intolerance. Blackburn does, however, have the distinction of having the youngest convicted terrorist in Britain: in 2015, a 14-year-old was found guilty of plotting online an attack in Australia on Anzac Day, when the war dead are remembered. A group of Muslim students pointed out that “Islamic terrorism” is regarded as being of a different order from the terror of those who go on a shooting spree in a school or shopping mall. Yet both are equally psychopathic, ideological extremes – one a travesty of religion, the other of a deranged individualism.

Social separation (some call it “elective apartheid”) between whites and those of south Asian heritage has been widely and sensationally commented on. It would be more accurate to speak of wary coexistence: indifference is, perhaps, a reasonable substitute for tolerance, though the two things are not the same. People say they just want to get on with their own lives and let others get on with theirs. In any case, many groups in society do not mix: the old do not socialise with the young. The rich rarely seek out the company of the poor. Some young Muslims asked me defiantly: “What is so special about ethnicity that people should feel compelled to ‘integrate’?” Mohammed Khan observes that in the US, Mennonites live quite separately, drive buggies, dress in black and don’t use electricity; and few consider this abnormal. In any case, at crucial moments, lives do intersect – in the health service, in workplaces, in public spaces, in shops, restaurants and voluntary organisations.

 Wary coexistence: women at a shopping centre in Blackburn in the 1970s. Credit: Ian Berry/Magnum Photos

There is an unexplored element in the fatalism about divided communities. Although differences are usually held responsible for division, similarities and common experiences can also, paradoxically, be a powerful source of alienation.

This is clear in the much-repeated assertion that “they” came to take “our” jobs.It is true that without migration, the mills would have closed ten or 15 years earlier: immigrants facilitated the three-shift system of 24-hour working. It was also said that they “took over” (the language of usurpation is never far from the surface) the housing of former working-class communities, the streets that rise and fall with the hills, from the brows of which you can no longer see chapels and churches but the minarets of some 40 mosques.

The houses that the respectable working class had called their “little palaces” became localities where goats were ritually killed at Eid al-Adha, people stopped what they were doing to visit the mosque at odd times of the day and the smell of curry pervaded the air. That many of these houses had been condemned as unfit for human habitation – despite occupancy by several generations – did not prevent a sense of their having been possessed by those who did not know how to look after them “properly”, which meant scrubbing the doorstep regularly and painting the doors brown. Little attention has been given to similarities between today’s citizens of southern Asian descent and the old white working class. The family remains the centre of social life. Extended families are common in the red-brick streets, with aunts, uncles and cousins next door, in the same street, round the corner. The rivalries of siblings cover a deeper commitment, and older children have a duty to look after younger brothers and sisters. When young people spoke of coming and going between households, they were also evoking the way an older generation in Blackburn lived. Mostly of village origin, the experience of south Asians who came to Blackburn in the 1950s and 1960s echoes that of country people who migrated to expanding mill towns in the 1830s and 1840s. This story ought to be familiar to the people of Britain, but it has been erased by a collective forgetting, so that when they confronted mid-20th-century incomers, they did so with a sense of estrangement, not only from ethnicity and religion but also from their own former selves.

A man in his fifties, visiting his 88-year-old mother in hospital, complained that a Muslim woman in the same ward was surrounded by relatives, while he was alone. Later, he said he, too, has many relatives in Lancashire, “but they are mostly in the cemetery”. The festival of Eid al-Fitr, with children dressed in their new clothes, recalls the old working-class culture of the chapel, with the young in suits and dresses parading through the town on the Whitsun walks.

Given the mutability of human societies, it is no surprise that what were seen as virtues in the old working class – sociability, mutual help, solidarity, neighbourliness and loyalty to relatives – became vices when these same qualities were embodied in newcomers, perceived as secretiveness, exclusion, narrow-mindedness, “sticking together”, not in solidarity but in collusion.

Firoza, of Humraaz, speaks of the culturally specific violence against women and girls: “In extended families parenting is dispersed among members, and this leaves some women with few skills. Many cannot turn on a computer. Violence has also changed. Women come to the refuge, less with bruises and injuries than because they are isolated by the family, not allowed to learn English. It is not always the husband who abuses them… Women now in their sixties were often mistreated by their mothers-in-law when they entered the husband’s family. They think, ‘Now it is my turn.’” Humraaz helps with access to benefits, financial independence, a safe space and resources to enable women to return to life and work.

Blackburn College, which has 13,000 students including 3,000 studying for a degree from the University of Lancaster, enables young women to continue education while still living at home. The college has always furthered upward mobility. It is also a powerful force for social and ethnic mixing. Becky Skarratts, herself from Blackburn, and the first in her family to get a degree, is its pastoral officer. She sees the college as an institution producing an alternative class of people, a more open and tolerant group than either the old working class or a defensive Muslim community. The college represents to many students an exit from Blackburn: those I spoke to – young people who wanted to work in childcare and special needs teaching – expected to leave the town; while a friend, a successful businessman, says that of the 15 school leavers who went from Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School to Oxbridge in the 1980s, only one came “home”. Many young gay Muslims have also found it prudent to leave.

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In predominantly white areas, traces of an older working-class culture remain, no longer the cosy sentimentality of the sociologist Richard Hoggart, but more abrasive, as befits a world in thrall to neoliberalism. Blackburn has more than 6,000 long-term sick. In the suburb of Mill Hill, there is a high proportion of older people, many with disability. Andy, diabetic, sat on his mobility scooter, his foot heavily bandaged, while Graham, who suffers from deep-vein thrombosis, was on a metal bench around a newly planted rowan tree. They were less concerned with a vanished world of order and discipline than with the fact that, as the terraced houses become vacant, they are bought up by absentee landlords from Manchester or London, who let them to the kind of people once housed by the council, those who “don’t give a flying fuck about their neighbours, play music all night, spaced out on drugs and alcohol”.

Before we parted I asked their age: one was 60, the other 62 – 15 years younger than I am. Here, untreated illness has been common: women who hid their cancer and wasting bodies until days before they died, undiagnosed disabilities that were dismissed as malingering, and mental illness written off as self-indulgence (the number of suicides in Blackburn with Darwen between 2002 and 2016 was double that in other east Lancashire boroughs). Resentments smoulder against those with the energy and strength to succeed – characteristic of migrants who have uprooted themselves to start a new life in a foreign land. If nostalgia is heritable, so is disadvantage – for all who boast that they have overcome poverty, abuse or chaotic childhoods, many more are still afflicted by generations of deprivation.

Blackburn is not a hotbed of extremism, racism or terrorism, any more than it is a citadel of liberal humanitarianism. In daily encounters, I witness touching moments – an elderly Muslim woman falls in the street and is cradled by two young white workmen until medical services arrive; a poem read by a schoolgirl after a moment’s silence outside the Town Hall on the anniversary of the Manchester bombing; a visit with the newly elected Saima Afzal to a Punjabi woman in her eighties whose family has moved away, and whom Saima then took on a shopping trip to a Pakistani grocer’s, her only outing for weeks; persistent use of the word “love” between strangers, male and female, in public places – not a patronising term, but a continuing recognition of a common predicament.

There are, too, instances of casual cruelty – when the first Asian family moves into a street you can still hear the remark that the “cancer has set in” – and tragic characters. I encounter a man who joined the army as a school leaver but never finished his training because of a broken ankle that would not mend – he cut his wrists at 17 and had a transfusion of contaminated blood, which has left him with hepatitis C – and a middle-aged woman living with her 22-year-old bipolar boyfriend on the streets. Arbitrary withdrawal of benefits has driven people to food banks, evicted families and forced many young people to sleep on other people’s sofas and floors, while casual labour and zero-hours contracts have made semi-dependants of mature adults. In the 1960s vulnerable people could expect the attention of social workers; now the best they can expect is “debt counsellors”.

The Labour council has conspicuously improved the physical aspect of the town and sought to safeguard services against government cuts; and is even-handed in dealing with majority and minority communities. But the town – like so many others – is still a place in transition to a future frequently foretold but never realised.

The question remains: what happens to human settlements that lose their reason for being? In these places scars linger, both in the psyche of people brought six generations ago from the countryside, and in the memory of those fetched, three generations later, from the villages of south Asia to service mills, many of which have now relocated to the very places from which they were recruited. The suggestion that robotics and artificial intelligence will enable the making of garments to be “reshored” to Lancashire is a slender consolation when vital threads have been broken and fabric has frayed in a sometime cotton town, no longer at the centre of the British economy, but on the periphery of an indifferent globalism.

Jeremy Seabrook’s books include “The Song of the Shirt: The High Price of Cheap Garments, from Blackburn to Bangladesh” and “Orphans: A History” (both Hurst)

Update: an earlier version of this article stated that the National Front gained council seats in Blackburn 1976 (it was in fact the National Party), and omitted to mention that in 2006 England First won council seats. On August 30 this was corrected.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special