The canal that led me to the real Harry Potter and a small pot of gold
Monday, 16 January 2017
This post is dedicated to the memory of Tim Edsall, a Midland pledger whose energy and enthusiasm helped me to get this funding project underway, and a very dear friend of both my father and myself. Tim passed away last weekend. He will be sorely missed.
This is the story of two great grandfathers but it was precipitated, as stories about the past so often are, with a new beginning. Back in October I started a new job in Here East, an enormous building that was the press centre for the 2012 Olympic Games and is currently being repurposed into a gigantic start-up hub which will, in theory, soon be home to all kinds of fledgling tech companies, all part of legacy transformation of the Queen Elizabeth Park.
Here East is in the northeastern corner of the park. I live in Hackney, so to get there I cycle through Victoria Park (what is it with naming parks after royalty?) to the junction of the Grand Union and Hertford Union Canals on the park’s southern border. The Grand Union links Limehouse Basin with Birmingham, and was completed in its current form in 1929 to simplify the transport of coal from the Midlands to the capital. The Hertford Union connects the Grand Union (or the bit of it also known as the Regent’s Canal) to the navigable stretch of the River Lea.
In the mornings I bike along the Hertford branch until it hits the river, which if I'm lucky gets marked by this spectacular view of sunrise over the Olympic stadium...
… and then cross a bridge and turn north along the Lea’s towpath river until I reach my office: the gray and yellow box that looks like it belongs in a science park on the far right in the pic below.
It’s a blissful commute - only 10 minutes or so - and when the weather’s right, as it was on the morning I took these pictures, the views can be quite sublime. Here’s a third shot I took that day, looking south along the Lea, past a newly opened adventure playground and primary school, just to prove the point.
But this Shed post isn’t about my photos, nice though they are. It’s about the strange coincidence that I’m now working next to a canal, a canal directly connected to the canal on which my great grandfather made his living back in the 1930s. If I commandeered one of the narrowboats I can see from my office window, raised the Jolly Roger, and piloted it down the Lea, through the Hertford and up the Grand Union I would eventually, after a week or so of winding my way through a couple of hundred locks, arrive at Lime Wharf, Rolfe Street in Birmingham’s Smethwick.
Today Lime Wharf is a scrubbed-up Enterprise Centre, but back in the early twentieth century it the site of the ominously titled Cooper & Swindler’s coal merchant’s, as attested by the large lettering on the high green gates that stood across the roadside entrance - lettering that was replaced with the single name “A. Cooper” after the Coopers and the Swindlers fell out. Whatever the cause of this ancient falling out, the yard was from then on the domain of Arthur Cooper, my maternal paternal great grandfather. (And in case you’re thinking that the Swindlers lived up to their moniker and were the cause of this rupture, by all accounts they were in fact very nice, honest people. What that says about my blood, the Coopers, I’m not altogether sure).
In the early 1970s when I was very young my mother used to take me to Lime Wharf, still a coal merchants at that time. One of my earliest memories is of eating Bird’s trifle in a peculiar little glassed-in parlour, its window boxes filled with straggly geraniums, which looked out soot-blackened brick walls and the oily trench of a canal that felt as if it was heading into the bowels of the earth. For a long time I thought that this was actually a constructed memory, fashioned with impressions and imagery from Bleak House and Eraserhead, but I called my mother today and she told me that it was an accurate description of my great aunt Elsie’s parlour.
Elsie was Arthur Cooper’s second child. She had two brothers: one younger, named Henry, who married a farm girl called Mary and moved out to the countryside near Sutton Coldfield; and an older one named Arthur Charles, after his coal-hauling Pa. Arthur Charles was my grandfather, although he died long before I was born. Although I never knew him I knew his wife - my granny - the evocatively christened Violet Olive, very well, as she lived with my parents for much of my childhood.
Knowing vaguely that Violet’s family had come to Smethwick from Bow, via Surrey, I asked my mother if the Arthur Charles and Violet Olive’s romance had somehow been brokered by the Grand Union itself. Had he perhaps met her while running coal down to Limehouse Basin?
Alas no. My novelist’s imagination was getting carried away again. The truth was, as the truth generally is, far darker and weirder. Arthur Cooper almost certainly never took his boats that far. Violet Olive met Arthur Charles because her mother, Florence Slade, had made a terrible choice of husband.
Florence had had her own rather successful laundry business and had been doing a good trade stiffening corsets and bleaching petticoats when for reasons best known to herself, however, she fell for my maternal maternal great grandfather, a labourer with (presumably) a gift for the gab and a winning smile - and a useless ne’er-do-well to boot.
Once married the cad ran through all Florence’s money and caused such problems that her business collapsed and the family was forced to move, and move again, tumbling north up the Grand Union and down the social ladder until they came to rest in a tiny, terrible house in the appropriately named Suffrage Street in Smethwick where to add to Florence’s torment, Violet Olive’s sister Ivy died, aged 13, of peritonitis.
The name of the author of all these misfortunes? He was called, if you can believe it, Harry Potter. And the name of the park at the end of Suffrage Street? You guessed it: Victoria Park, just like the one I now live alongside in London.
History doesn’t repeat itself. But it certainly rhymes.
I don’t have any pictures of Harry Potter, but here’s a picture of Arthur Cooper, with one of the horses that were his obsession. There were stables in Lime Wharf, and the horses pulled his barges. He won prizes with them, and the oiled iron range in that parlour in which I sat eating trifle was covered with the trophy horse brasses that he’d picked up in his time.
And here’s a picture of the wharf itself. It’s a tiny image, but you can clearly see the coal barges moored out front - the same design as the ones I remember from my visits. In the yard great blocks of coal are stacked up against the walls. In front of them a wagon is lying tipped back, shafts pointing skyward, and behind that I think - though I need to check it with my mother - is the Cooper’s house, the one with the whitewash around the door and the windows.
It was amazing that Elsie kept the house as clean as she did. It had no bathroom so the family washed the coal dust off at the nearby Smethwick Baths, opened in 1933 and still standing today thanks to its art deco stylings and distinctive vaulted ceiling.
There wasn’t just coal dust to contend with. The pollution from the nearby metalworks of Guest, Keen and Nettlefolds Limited, the company part-founded by Joseph Chamberlain that by the end of the First World War was producing almost half the screws and a quarter of the nuts and bolts for the entire country, was so bad that by the 1960s it was said to be puckering the paintwork on cars parked nearby. It had expanded even further by that time though, and was better known by then - as it still is now - by its acronym: GKN.
Living and working in the midst of all of this, it’s no surprise that the Coopers had a reputation for being rough. But then they also had a reputation for being tough and - by the measure of the area - established and successful. From these coal yards and metalworks elements of the British motor industry would grow, and Arthur Charles counted mechanics and racing drivers among his friends, including Smethwick’s world-famous hill climber Ken Wharton, later killed in fatal crash at the New Zealand Grand Prix in 1952 - at a point when the car industry in Birmingham was pretty much the equivalent of what the internet industry was in Silicon Valley in the 1990s.
Maybe that’s what attracted Violet to him. I was always told that she was anything but shrinking - as a young woman she had own motorbike at a stage when it was considered most unladylike, from which she’d removed the silencer just to make sure everyone knew what she was about.
She saw Arthur Charles as her ticket out of Suffrage Street and, indeed, out of Smethwick altogether. By the time my mother was going to school Violet had leap-frogged Lime Wharf and had scored herself a modest new build - with a bathroom - in the desirable suburban enclave of Alvechurch, where she taught the piano and bred budgerigars in a long flight cage in the garden. In fact, that’s where she taught me the piano, though sad to say she also rather put me off it, by balancing two pence pieces on the backs of my hands to make me bend my fingers and thwacking me across the knuckles with a wooden ruler whenever they fell off.
The Nolan family in Midland comes out of this milieu. Tony Nolan is a confluence of some of the industrial Black Country streams from which mighty multinationals would flow. And Midland itself came out of a decision I took around the time my own father was dying of leukemia to write something about my own hinterlands of Birmingham and Warwickshire. Which makes the last coincidence I have to report the strangest of all.
To finish Midland I had to quit my job at the Telegraph and take more flexible employment with a start-up which soon crashed and burned. This left me with enough time to get the book into good enough shape to cut a deal with Unbound, but it also left me in fairly dire financial straits. To finish the book to the satisfaction of my editor, the estimable Rachael Kerr, it still needed about three months’ of solid work. But I had no money left to support myself or my family while I did this.
Then, completely out of the blue - and as if out of the pages of someone else’s novel - I got a letter from a private investigator (these people do, it seems, exist). In some kind of karmic acknowledgement of the ten years I’d spent trying to haul some of this out of my subconscious, he told me that a life insurance policy in Elsie’s name had been discovered, more than a quarter of a century after she’d died. As she’d name my sister and I in her will, and we were to each inherit a small chunk of the pay out that was due.
It wasn’t riches beyond the dreams of avarice, but it was exactly the amount of cash I needed to calm my financial nerves, finish the book, and find a new job. Good old aunt Elsie. Who knew she’d hidden a golden ticket in the bottom of that trifle - a ticket that would ensure, all these years later, that her story would get told.
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