Ian McKellen Writings

2 January 1977 | Pierless Youth

First pubished in The Sunday Times Magazine

O, Wigan is a grand old town;
The Romans knew it well.
It always had its Good King Coal,
As long as folks can tell.
— Wigan Grammar School song

George Formby, who was born there, invented the joke about Wigan's Pier. His birthplace, founded literally on coal, was a slag-heap compared with clean and breezy Blackpool and Southport by the seaside, 20 miles west. When we lived in Wigan, during the last war and the six years after, smoke smutted Monday's wash on the clothesline and blackened the Parish church like the faces of the miners clogging home from the pits.

Our four-bedroomed semi was on a main bus-route between the dark cobbled slums of the centre and the posher suburbs which edged on to the grey fields skirting the town. We were secluded from the extremes of poverty and status. In 1949, we celebrated my father's income as Borough Engineer hitting 1000 a year. Like most of Wigan, my parents voted Labour. When George VI and Queen Elizabeth drove through the town, I asked my father what the King's politics were. "He's a good old Tory, I should think."


The King and Queen visit Wigan

The great leveller in Wigan was the local accent - flat vowels shared by all, regardless of income. The town itself belonged to all and our family took full advantage of its communal amenities. There were half-a-dozen cinemas, Frank H. Fortescue's weekly rep. company, municipal baths and the children's library where the books were imprisoned behind wire-netting.

Across our road was Mesnes Park, with its swings, tennis court, broad walks (good for roller-skating) and its shrubberies (good for surprising lovers). Twice on summer Sundays a brass band boomed at the ducks on the park pond. It would be heard over at the cricket club at the bottom of our garden. The local team played visitors from the South Lancs. League; foreigners from distant lands like Altrincham, Warrington and Leigh. I scored for the second eleven, after Sunday school.

Beyond the far boundary of the cricket-ground ran the LMS Railway, my childhood's horizon. It linked Blackpool (where I went only once, for the Illuminations) and London (five hours away by steam). On that line we spotted the first diesel engine on its practice run. And, in 1944, along it travelled the Levicks (Mrs and two children) evacuated from Middlesex. Before they stayed with us, we knew the war first-hand only through Mickey Mouse gas-masks, blackout at the windows and nights under the iron shelter in the back room.

Wigan had no bombs that I remember and, only after peace resumed (Union Jacks in the streets on VJ Day), did I realise that war wasn't normal. There'd been no sweets at home, except the Horlick's tablets my dad got from the ARP. Enough sugar - we swopped it for tea coupons and drank water with our meals. Little butter - on Saturdays we blended top-of-the-milk, marg and the real thing - and that ran out by Thursday. My mother baked twice a week. Parkin was favourites.

After the evacuees, there was a German soldier from the local prisoner-of-war camp, who spent Christmas Day with us. After him, other German visitors, pre-war friends of the family. Once, Henry stayed, an African, more shining black than any miner. Wigan was my only world and these strangers were from outer space. So, too, seemed the actors, magnificently striding back from the Hippodrome past our house to their digs with, perhaps, Mrs Merrifield in Park Road. Sundays she played Bach on the harmonium to wake her Catholic guests in time for early mass and, at a later hour, Wesleyan hymn-tunes for the sluggard nonconformists.

My haircut cost 3d for a scalping back-and-sides, singeing with a wax taper and a rub-over with Bronco lav. paper. So the most glamorous of all strangers were the greasy, long-haired fair-hands from Silcock's Brothers who twice a year set up Moon Rocket, Big Wheel and Caterpillar on the Market Place. There was the Fattest Woman (whom I once glimpsed under her tent flap); Anita, at 18 inches, 'Their Majesties' Smallest Subject'. The Sullivans boxed, showgirls danced and Siamese Twins were pickled in a jar.

On the same market place in summer Smith's coaches prepared for the Lake District, North Wales, London and even the Continent. I imagined as they waited to leave, full of locals in best hats and Sunday suits, that the buses had newly arrived whence they were going. And I paraded up and down them, proud to belong Wigan, tourist attraction and centre of the world. Most likely I was en route for the market arcade - Santus Sweet Stall - 3d pocket money lavished on treacle toffee or Uncle Joe's Mint Balls. Then on to the Saturday Market, where Autolycus and his mates peddled lucky charms from India, cure-all medicines from Africa and plastic gadgets 'direct from the Ideal Homes Exhibition in London'. They were the first performers I saw working close to. Few had much glamour (the one selling hair-restorer wore a wig) but they had an energy, a confidence and an optimism that lifted them beyond the shoddy they traded in. They made me want to become an actor.

So much delighted me as a child — the pop made on the spot in a corner shop for a penny; the lamplighter; the horses that delivered our coal and milk; the blacksmith whom I visited at his forge on my way to school. When, in 1951, we removed eight miles across the border to Bolton they were still there. So was the coal dirt; now even that has gone, along with the rest. Last year I returned, stranger, and the Parish Church was clean as sand. They'll be building a pier next, on the canal somewhere.

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