'A Wigan Childhood is a happy marriage of personal memoir and local history.
With great warmth and wit, John Sharrock Taylor paints a vivid picture of knee-high life in the 1950s, an era that many Wiganers will remember with clarity and fondness. Indeed, this book will be a sheer delight for anyone who recalls (or loves to read about) a time when Mondays meant the smell of boiling washing; when net curtains twitched in the hope of witnessing scandal; homemade brakeless go-karts terrorised old ladies; cinema lights shone on every corner; and the air was filled with the competing aromas of coal dust, meat and potato pies and Uncle Joe’s Mint Balls.
In a tremendously entertaining style, and with real honesty, the author tells not only of his own childhood but also reveals the stories – skeletons and all! – of generations of his family. The portrayals of austere aunts, black-clad grandmothers, naughty boys and a myriad other characters will have readers nodding in recognition, and laughing out loud at some of their tales and exploits.
And to set the whole lot in context, John has woven skilfully into the narrative the history of the town itself, right back to earliest times, making this book a truly rounded evocation of a much-loved Lancashire town, and a must for all who know it.'
DAVID SMITH'S REVIEW
(DC refers to the author as Captain Mainwaring, his pseudonym on the Times Educational Website)
I polished off AWC. With great enjoyment.
Not a fan of Cider with Rosie (apparently one of the inspirations for AWC) I wondered whether we'd be in for an over-lengthy nostalgic-bucolic-egoistic ramble. Perhaps there will be Laurie Lee fanciers out there who will buy this book and be disappointed to find, as I emphatically was not, that instead of Golden-Age Gloucestershire we get Working-Class Wigan, a different and more interesting sort of meat-n-potato pie altogether.
And as for egoism, one of the admirable features of AWC is that, while its author remains at or near the centre, it is informed at all times by an astute and empathetic interest in other people and their place and moment in history.
Indeed, before the Cap'n settles into his own boyhood and youth, he gives us a detailed, loving, quirky account of his traceable ancestors and the county (or counties, for they were not all Lancastrians) whose loam, as it were, our author bears in his veins.
This is History rather than autobiography, and none the worse for that: a recently awakened interest in genealogy is put to effective use. Reminding readers that even the Smiths and Browns among us, poor dears, can now with a little luck and patience delve deep into their ancestry, the Captain offers the fruits of his own research with lucid wit. All Local Historians endeavour to bring 'ornery folk' alive and lend their existence due significance - unlike many, Captain M actually has the literary wherewithal to do so.
Once the focus narrows to his own upbringing, we naturally hear of the amusing scrapes and japes, frolicks and colicks of childhood, but also read an entirely clearsighted appraisal of his parents' unsatisfying marriage. There is no self-indulgent handwringing, nor blame nor sentimentality, simply an acknowledgement that here were two attractive, decent, intelligent but mismatched people, whose home was never a sure refuge to our author: for such comfort, he had to seek the houses of other relatives. Equally deft and unsentimental is the way in which the thread of references to Taylor's own happy marriage and parenthood modestly shows how Larkin may be wrong: no misery was handed on here.
1950s Wigan, the other protagonist of the book, comes vividly alive around our young hero as he survives go-cart crashes, movie-inspired Wild West carnage, the proximity of a serial murderer and (not least) the eleven-plus, to develop the passions for literature and music which have nourished him and his students in the decades since then.
Apparently the publisher insisted on a paragraph or two of 'Forty Years On' reflections, and that is about all we get. This reader would have enjoyed more along these lines, but as a long-absent 'Wigginer' the Captain is probably wise to have eschewed facile comparisons between a sharply recalled 'then' and an occasional visitor's 'now'.
George Orwell, who painted a more dismal portait of Wigan in the 30s, also gave us Burmese Days. There is reason to hope that Captain Mainwaring is also planning to give us an account of his time East of Suez as an Imperial Mounted Policeman/ International Educator. Readers of AWC will look forward eagerly to the next volume, and wish long life to the Sage of the Sierras.
WIGWANN ON WIGANWORLD, OCTOBER 2011
The excellent A Wigan Childhood by John Sharrock Taylor brings the baths and Millgate area to life. It was one of the few books I have read recently that had me laughing out loud!