Made in Widnes
On a map, it looks as if it’s sidling up to Liverpool to scrounge a cigarette. Manchester has taken a step back, probably to get away from the smell. Widnes is famous for its smell. The town is basically a load of chemical factories and manufacturing plants with some houses squished between them. On bad days, the air punches you in the nose.
I hated living there. As an adult, I know that Widnes is a deprived town that’s suffered awful neglect under successive governments who don’t give a toss about the working class or the places they live. As a kid, I just thought it was a hole.
Every few weeks we’d be chased by a teenager with a stick that had nails hammered through it. There was always litter on the ground and dog poo in the grass. “Paki” was a catchall racial slur for anybody who wasn’t white, which is why the owners of our local chippy had to scrape it off their window every other week, despite being Thai.
Every other place I read about, every place I saw on telly, seemed better. When I was eight, I’d sit at my bedroom window, staring at the lights of our neighbouring town of Runcorn, wishing I could move there. I’d never been, but that didn’t stop me pining. One night my mum caught me sneaking down the stairs after bedtime. She asked where I was going and I showed her the money in my hand. I was catching the bus to Runcorn, I said. She put me back in bed and took me herself the next day. It wasn’t any better, and I began to wonder if the entire world was like Widnes.
Paul Simon had been so demoralised by the place in the 60s he wrote “Homeward Bound” on the platform of Widnes station. He’d only been visiting. I had to bloody live there. Our borough had the fourth highest rate of cancer deaths in the country. Our municipal golf course was shut because arsenic started bubbling up through the ground. Widnes is full of stories like that. It’s the sort of place where horrible things queue up to happen.
Reading was my Horrible things queue up to happen in Widnes
escape. Agatha Christie mysteries were my favourite. They were delivered to our house by our lovely neighbour Doris, who’d buy them from car boot sales for me. The good people are like that there. They’re funny, kind. They’ll go out of their way to help each other.
I haven’t been back to Widnes for a long while, but I sincerely think our country would be better off if parliament relocated there. If our next prime minister were forced to suck in Widnes’s stinking air for a few years, we’d have a better, fairer, more equal country in a decade.
The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton won the Costa first novel award this week.