View from the Bridge: 67

by John Morrison


67: Pioneers

The fortnightly meetings of the Milltown Antiquarian and Local History Society are held in a dusty room at the back of the library. The key is only available to members of the society and other registered pedants. Here, displayed in glass cases, are some of the archaeological finds made by the men whose fading photographs line the walls. Local history was a serious business late last century, to judge from their bleak, unsmiling features. With their full beards and piercing eyes, they display the passion of religious zealots. They could have been Old Testament prophets, or ministers of the cloth. Instead, they were intractable men of impeccable character, with rather more time on their hands than was good for them.

Two portraits stand out. The protagonists face each other across the room, and across the twentieth century; the steeliness of their gaze is undiminished. Both were well known in Milltown for their encyclopaedic knowledge of the town's history. Both published scholarly papers on their archaeological discoveries. Other historians held them in equal respect, even awe. But their heroic deeds in the amphitheatre of local history had a doomed, Shakespearian quality. Milltown was just too small a town to accommodate two great minds and, more to the point, two such monstrous egos.

When these two locked horns in a debate, the other society members might just as well have crept out to the Poultry Dealers Arms. Which they often did. Whenever these two disagreed (and no matter was ever deemed too trivial to fuel a heated argument), you can be sure it was personal. Tightly-clenched fists would pummel leather-bound tomes, raising clouds of dust. And the more they disagreed, the more poisonously polite they would become.

Displaying the erudite skills and barbed observations of a pair of sparring lawyers, they fought long and hard over the custody of Milltown's heritage. They talked about each other in the third person, as though to distance themselves even further from views they found so repellent.

"I would like my learned friend to consider whether it might, in fact, be a more likely scenario that..."...

"Far be it for me, a humble seeker after truth, to question my colleague's grasp of a difficult subject. Nevertheless I would like to point out that..."...

It's no wonder that the local historians of the 1990s, busy delving into the same dusty tomes, can still feel the gimlet eyes of their antecedents boring into the backs of their heads.

The great days of the Milltown Antiquarian and Local History Society came late last century, when the textile industries were booming. The looms clattered and the mill-chimneys issued yellow smoke that hung in the valley and blackened the buildings. The future looked bright, at least for those who owned the mills. They weren't to know then what would happen to Milltown and all the other textile towns of Yorkshire and Lancashire. It's reassuring, in fact, to find that Milltown has any history at all, for this is a little town that almost died, before rising again like a phoenix from the flames.

During the 1950s and 1960s Milltown was in steep decline, with textile mills closing at a startling rate. The flames weren't merely metaphorical, with mill-fires being a more common occurrence than chance alone would seem to suggest. It was like the Klondyke in reverse: people rushed to leave the valley in search of work. House prices slumped to the point where many people simply locked up their terraced homes and abandoned them.

Milltown was just one more town that had become over-reliant on a single, failing industry. Except that Milltown didn't die; it changed. When a motley collection of utopian idealists were looking for somewhere to put down roots, they found that Milltown answered many of their needs. Milltown offered a reluctant embrace, throughout the 1970s, to the first wave of hippy settlers. It was a place where penury, eccentricity and unusual belief systems could co-exist with more orthodox outlooks. They bought - for small change - terraced houses that might otherwise have fallen to the bulldozers, thus revealing rather more financial nous than their unconventional dress-sense might indicate.

The yuppies used to brag, during their interminable dinner parties, about how much their houses had risen in value between the entree and the sweet course. Now, a decade later, the hippies boast how little their houses cost when they first arrived in Milltown. It's a strange inversion.

These early settlers retain a special place in our affections; they're our nobility. And the first family - our Kennedys, if you will - are the earliest hippy settlers of all: Arthur and Martha Fustian. They look like everybody's grandparents and - given the informal sexual attitudes that prevailed during the early 1970s - who's to say they aren't?

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