British football grew and thrived in northern industrial towns. The environment that fostered the game survived pretty much intact until the late 1950s.
For people of my generation, the 1950s will always feel twenty years ago – albeit twenty very long, entirely revolutionary years. In truth, it’s half a century now, and the people who lived and worked in the conventional surroundings of a northern industrial town are beginning to succumb to old age. In another twenty years, there’ll be nothing left but film, photographs and oral history.
Photographs like these, taken in Scotswood Road, an area of Newcastle Upon Tyne by a man, Jimmy Forsyth, who could see which way the wind was blowing and decided to record what was around him before change could sweep it all away.
I am particularly struck by this photograph of a frosty terraced street. Is the photograper leaning too hard on the bleak button?
This kind of affectionate approach to working class life was a feature of the thirties, forties and fifties, and I can’t help but think it’s significant by its absence now. At the same time, that very affection is affected: what’s been affected, distorts, and leaves nostalgia or frustrated ignorance as the only available reactions. What makes us dislike today can do that without telling us so very much about what that yesterday, for all its prevailing imperative, was actually like.
“Housing Problems“, filmed in London’s East End in 1935, gives a different view. When Jimmy Forsyth was taking his pictures, all of what he observed was shortly to be swept away. The peculiar difficulties and problems of that kind of life were about to be solved – or so everyone thought – which opened up the mental room to remember what had, after all, been good about it. In 1935, those difficulties and problems were not only live and kicking – literally, in the case of a vermin-infested wall – but seemingly interminable, stretching away into the future unresolved. In this context, Scotswood Road reminds me of all that Milton scholarship since the 1950s, so nostalgic for hell and so confident that hell is off the agenda for good this time.
If there’s one thing that’s forgotten now, apart from the sheer noise, 24/7, of industrial towns, it’s the smoke. Ever wonder why so many of those early football films look the way they do? It isn’t just the poor film stock. Even on a clear day, there’s an edge taken from the light. Newcastle v Sunderland, 1913:
23 years later, and by the coast at Redcar, the difference is palpable, and again it’s not all in the film stock:
8 years later, at Gateshead. I’m not so sure about this clip in terms of what it shows – a hint of grey in the background on occasion, but nothing to cloud, as it were, a moving, cheering wartime clip:
The pall is much more obvious in this VE Day film produced by Gateshead Police: