PHILIP CALLOW comes from Coventry, but is Nottingham by marriage. He is the author of Common People 1958, Native Ground 1959, A Pledge for the Earth 1960, and of the TV play The Honeymooners.
NOTTINGHAM IS MY SECOND HOME, where I had a second birth. Every time I go there, the past hits me. The hour of birth coming on, the struggle, the sad and the glad ghosts. Ghosts everywhere. Even D. H. Lawrence, glowering through the fog, rancorous, his hate killing him. “There is no Nottingham” he wrote, a year before he died. What he meant was, to make a city you have to unite, make a big gesture, be a citizen.
Every time I go there, I get out at Nottingham Midland and start to lug a suitcase all the way into town; past Woolworths, up the narrow arcade by St. Peter’s into Slab Square. I gorge on the past, chew the cud of old experiences, every step of the way. It’s automatic. A Mapperly bus swings me round by the theatre and down Sherwood Street, past the library, the fire-station. Ghosts, memories. Mansfield Road, the past billowing and thick and murky, so dense, as we turn into Woodborough Road, that I can hardly see the houses.
Once it was the past and nothing else. That’s terrible. Now it’s more, much more, and I don’t know how it’s happened, but how glad I am. Nottingham unites things for me, more than any other place. Unites things inside me. I am alienated no longer. The physical Nottingham I still find as gruesome as ever, like my own birthplace, Birmingham, like Manchester, like Coventry where I grew up. If these industrial rat-traps with their miles of charred terraces, miles of nasty little homes, could be razed to the ground without hurting a hair of anybody’s head, I’d say: quick, do it. Press the button! I hope I never have an uglier journey to work than my daily trip to the Ordnance Factory, for instance, during my three months sentence. Round by the dance hall, the Labour Exchange, a sharp left turn along Wilford Road, away from that castle and its rock wallowing in the streets, black, like a bull, the view worsening steadily as you drew nearer the factory gates. Then you really abandoned hope. Leaving at night the back way, alongside North Shop and out over the railway tracks to Lenton, in a landscape devastated like a battlefield, I used to feel like a convict, really one of the living dead, on the run from a chain gang. No wonder I grabbed at love, no wonder I hung on, no wonder I begged and struggled to be born.
Nottingham, thank God, is also people, Nottingham unites me now with Birmingham, Coventry and Plymouth, with Kingston, Calcutta and Karachi, and the result, strangely enough, is not a monster. It is a world of people. People who come and go as I do, people who stay, live and die, give birth, people who are arriving immigrants. The people are a mystery, they change all the time. In 1950 I go to Nottingham to live, so as to be near a woman who is virtually giving birth to me—my second birth. But she doesn’t finish it, and anyway you have to die first. She was also killing me. I died more than once, had more than one rebirth. I meet a group of young anarchists, adrift like myself, and all this time in Nottingham—nine months!—I am living my first book, though I have to go away and wait years to write it. And how it makes me suffer. Meanwhile, another woman takes hold of me, this one really in earnest, and she drags me bodily into new life, in Nottingham.
Things have a way of happening to me in Nottingham. I see Sum Total in a bookshop window and think no more of it. But it works away, ferments, and I end up knocking on the author’s door. This writer tells me nothing about the city. He takes me to a pub, I sit listening to scraps of conversation, see him mixing with the locals, hear arguments about the police, a bus strike, and the whole place takes on a new dimension. My father-in-law, an old man of eighty, brings the old days to life, the old town, the pubs, the outlying villages—I hear it from his lips as I once read it in the pages of Lawrence. Outside in the street the new immigrants go up and down, move into houses opposite, come off the transport shifts. West Indians, Indians, Pakistanis. They are another new dimension. They aren’t accepted, only tolerated, and doubtless they don’t accept us either, or even each other. But they must, and we must—or history will drag us back, kill us with the past. They are here, and that is a fact which alters everything. Equal in Nottingham. Every time I pass one I say welcome, welcome under my breath. Give us time to change. Let us live together for a few years, a few decades, a few centuries. Let the children decide, for themselves, what we can never decide. Unite, or stay separate. Be a citizen, or hide away in a little home.
Nottingham, to paraphrase James Baldwin, is white no more. And it will never be white again. The world is now coming into this Nottingham which Lawrence wanted pulled down to the last brick, for “an absolute clean start”. This is the next best thing. Or maybe, for all we know, it is even better.