Jeanette Winterson on Accrington: 'I love the north; our energy, toughness, humour'

The author of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit reveals how the town where she grew up helped to mould her and her writing

I was born in Manchester. If I had been brought up there, with my biological mother, that would have been a different life. I can imagine it, but I am a fiction writer, and I like to imagine other versions in other lives.

Twenty-two miles north in Accrington is where I grew up; I have written about that in the hall of mirrors that is my first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, and in the clear glass version that is the sort-of memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

Accrington was a proud industrial town in its heyday; cotton mills, engineering works, the famous Nori brickworks – the world’s hardest bricks, used for the base of the Empire State Building and Blackpool tower. Nori is iron spelt backwards – nobody really knows whether it was a mistake or a branding brainwave – but the idea that things could be backwards, or upside down, and still rock-solid appealed to me. For me, culture is just that kind of mix of well-grounded tradition and make-you-look-twice innovation.

I got my tradition reading English literature in Prose A-Z on the shelves of the Accrington public library – a Carnegie library, built with money provided by the steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, who believed that the working classes needed, and wanted, books of every kind. Next to that library was the Mechanics Institute, part of the great legacy of the trade union movement, to educate and stimulate working men and women through evening lectures and weekend courses.

It never occurred to me that learning, the arts, music, the life of the mind, were not for me as a working-class girl. My parents were not educated, and I didn’t know anyone who had been to university, but there was no pride in being ignorant either; it was assumed that you educated yourself, according to your interests.

Innovation was harder. There was a suspicion of the new and different, the untried. And because my family was religious, that made us doubly doubt anything not handed down on stone tablets. I felt trapped by my life in so many ways, but in so many ways it was my life that gave me the mental strength to escape.

I don’t go back to Accrington. But I have returned to my birthplace of Manchester, as professor of new writing at the university. This is an exhilarating homecoming for me. I feel connected to the city, its buildings, its history – and yes, its innovative, restless, remaking of itself from the industrial revolution onwards. Manchester is an alchemical city.

I love the north; our humour, toughness, energy, plain speaking. All of that is part of our culture. And my culture.

Contributor

Jeanette Winterson

The GuardianTramp

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