John’s autobiography is approaching publication
John is the only surviving member of the original Coronation Street writing team
LOCATIONS IN THE HEART
Some brief excerpts
THE ROAD TO GRANADA
As you grow old there can be a tendency for words, learned and stored over many long years, to disappear from the vocabulary of your life. You reach for them using tools like association, but in the end, frustrated, you will probably be driven to use an alternative. Like an old signpost, with weathered letters which once formed a name, they indicate the direction in which you are going, without the certainty of knowing the precise destination.
I recently had an eye operation under local anaesthetic. As I lay there, covered by a sheet, with only the eye exposed, and with strict instructions not to speak, I travelled some of the highways of my life on this planet, from the poverty of my childhood and adolescence, to the relative affluence which eventually came later. I imagined I lay in my bed in the early dawning of my life in a Yorkshire mining village where the slag heaps sweep down almost to the doors of the houses; and I listened to the clack of the clogs as the night shift passed down the empty morning street.
Looking out of my bedroom window in Hyde Park Gate I saw Churchill emerge from the house opposite, where he lived; I shivered in the damp cellar off Baker Street where I later lived and tried to learn my craft and eat at the same time; I stagger on watch across the flying bridge of the petrol tanker, Magdala, and think I see the track of a torpedo; but it is only the phosphorescence on the top of a wavelet, and under us the many thousand tons of aviation spirit slops in the tanks of the vessel which, we hope, is going to take us safely to the haven surrounding Ailsa Craig, where the relief at seeing the lovely green Scottish hills later led me on to the green pastures of the Yorkshire Dales and an old age, 92, that I never thought to survive to.
That great, prolific but complex writer George Orwell, once described ‘Grist to the Mill ‘, ‘grist being the raw substance of our physical being, as an outdated expression. I disagree.
The first part of these memoirs deals with the early grist. What is made of it, and what part of it is either absorbed or lost in the process will hopefully emerge as the years wear on. I am reminded of a quotation which Graham Green uses on the opening page of The End of the Affair..
“Man has places in his heart which do not yet exist, and into them comes suffering in order that they may have existence.” So wrote Leon Bloy, the 19th century poet and novelist.
Yet there is laughter, too. Carried in the memory it echoes in the pools of lamplight in which at night we safely played in those last summer evenings before the shadow of the blackout struck us; screaming delight down the dark ginnels through which we chased each other into the future. Girls with bright hair, and brighter illusions, and lads who cared too late before memory pursued them into the great enigma to come
Coronation Street was not the world of O’Casey, Ibsen, Chekov or even J.B.Priestley that I had yearned for, but in so many other ways it opened an almost magic door. There would come a time, not too far off I told myself, when I would be able to write what I wanted to write and not what my financial circumstances dictated. This phony confidence is inherited by the current generation of so-called celebrities, as with others over the centuries.
Harry Kershaw was very keen to write more scripts himself. He asked me if I would be interested in taking over the job as script editor for a time so he would have more time to write. I agreed and a contract was signed. This, and the offer of a later contract to write exclusively for Granada for the next two years gave me a degree of security which solved a worrying problem I had since I was eventually still employed by the Rochdale engineering company, which was by no means a sinecure, and sooner or later the crunch would come.
I can remember walking back into the house, like a blind man who has suddenly regained his sight , and closing the study door behind me. It mattered not one jot that my physical surroundings were light years ahead of what had gone before. All I wanted at that hour, as the dusk of evening fell around me, was that blank sheet of paper.
A few days that seemed like hours passed before the telephone rang and Denis Forman’s secretary said; “Mr. Forman would like a chat.
When we met I told him, in as few words as possible, of the kind of life I wanted to depict, and the kind of people I saw living it. He asked for no more; no meeting of top managers to discuss the costs and the why’s and wherefores. No round the table committees of writers, producers and all the paraphernalia of what the late Jim Allen called “The Wireworks”.
“Just go and do it,” he said.
The title was easy. I just called it “SAM”.
On the evening, before I wrote these last words I played a recording of Bach’s Double Concerto,my eyes shut to enclose the memory of the buskers in the arcade at Charing Cross, then I took a walk down the rough track that leads to the hills. It was a short walk for my legs are beginning to fail me.
Back home I sat down and spoke briefly on the phone to an old acquaintance at the place I once called home. He confirmed the possibility that had already occurred to me. After I put the phone down I went out into the garden where the light was beginning to fade. A walker passed down the pathway and the gate at the end squeaked as he stepped out into the road..
Already the tiny flickers of light were coming on in the farmhouses dotted across the hills opposite. Soon it would be winter, and for a time at least probably snow would fall and unify the landscape. It would fall like the final curtain on the trivialities and the inadequacies of my past, and of my present; on the houses we had lived in where others now lived. It would fall, too, on the churchyard and the roof of the church in which I had found, only to lose, the comforting illusion of some kind of almighty father figure; and on the lonely grave where Alice lay buried.