On the main road, the buzz of suburban, school-run traffic makes for a polite yet incessant accompaniment to my uphill walk. I squint my eyes, fighting against the sun, and see the corner shop on the horizon. My strides get longer and faster.
Pushing the door open, a sharp bell rings and the thick scent of the cashier’s nail varnish smacks me in the face. She stuffs the little, neon-pink bottle into her Paul’s Boutique handbag, (helpfully placed on the floor next to her, allowing for easy access to her Pall Mall cigarettes) and looks surprised to see me.
“Shit, sorry, I didn’t realise we should be open yet, tha know?! Fuck, I’m havin’ a barmy today!” she says, wafting both of her hands in front of her face. “This nail varnish tecks mick dryin’…”
I chuckle awkwardly, to entertain her, and pretend to busy myself on my phone. After twenty years of living here, I wonder if I’ll ever get used to how Wiganers talk to each other; thunderous, unapologetic, and abrupt, like the other is partially deaf.
The Wigan accent is the laughingstock of Lancashire. Orwell wrote an entire book about the town’s uneducated, gritty tones, which has questionably been at the forefront of our immense local pride since 1937. Despite this, we spend our days silently judging one another for how broad we are. That is, before we hear ourselves speak on one of our Nana’s home videos over Christmas, leaving us sickened at how horrifically northern we sound.
“Fritnin’ init?! You don’t ‘ear it in yurself until someone puts it in front o’ thee,” our Grandparents snigger.
“Let us know if you need owt, cock!” the cashier shouts from the till.
I pass through the first aisle, wondering if it being filled with cheap beer and crisps is a rule of thumb in all corner shops, or whether it only applies to those in Wigan. I head straight towards the fridges at the back, like clockwork. They have been my first port of call in here since I was old enough for my Dad to let me walk up the road on my own.
“Check the fridge whoopsies when you’re up there, love!” he’d bellow as I opened the back door to leave. “Steve told us they had packs o’ yoghurts for 10p t’other day…” he’d whisper to my Mam, like it was the most exciting thing he’d heard all week.
I grab a can of pop, pay, and leave, with the ring of the doorbell bidding me goodbye.
A thirty-minute walk later, I arrive in Wigan town centre. I haven’t been in over a year, but it is exactly as I remember it; friendly northerners chatting to each other casually in the street, and the familiar smell of Uncle Joe’s Mint Ball Factory dancing among the traditional Tudor architecture and bakeries on what, as a child, I named ‘Pie-Eater’s Square’.
I used to think that we gave ourselves that name: pie-eaters. But it’s actually far more historical than the expected “We scran alodda pies ‘round ‘ere,” and dates as far back as 1926. During the General Strike, Wigan coal miners were starved back to work far before the miners from surrounding towns were, forcing them to metaphorically eat ‘humble pie’. But of course, a small part of the name is also thanks to the meat and potato pie being something of a delicacy around here.
I’ve got twenty minutes or so until I need to meet my Dad, so I take myself to see The Face of Wigan. Eighteen feet of reflective steel in the shape of a face, no one knows what this sculpture represents, or why it suddenly popped up in 2008. It’s beautiful in the Summer, though. Spending the afternoon sipping a cold beer in the garden of Weind Bar, whilst looking out on The Face sparkling in the sun, is one of my favourite pastimes.
I park myself on the grass, and feel the sun on my skin. The quiet bustle of Wigan town centre on a weekday morning is glorious; stay-at-home mums shop with their young children running around and squealing happily.
Walking to meet my Dad, I turn up King Street: the centre of Wigan’s nightlife. At this time on a Monday, it’s in all its post-weekend glory. Littered with empty Strongbow cans, unwanted, takeaway chips, and the odd pair of stray knickers, the concrete pavements whisper mischievous stories of the night before.
It would be easy to look down on those who spend their weekend in this corner of town, but I understand the fun in it. I’ve wreaked some havoc on this street. Memories of sneaking into clubs underage, slurred, day-time World Cup chants, tequila-fuelled birthdays, and helping friends through break-ups by dancing in Vodka Revolution until 3am flash before my eyes. A warm sensation spreads across my chest and up to my face. I smile.
Reading the paper on the morning of the 27th December, holding hands with the world’s worst hangover, makes me smile for the same reason. In Wigan, spending Boxing Night being blind drunk on King Street, and in embarrassing fancy dress, is a tradition that lies at the very core of the town’s inhabitants. The big night out started to gain national coverage in the media a couple of years ago, which means that the morning after has turned into as much of a ritual as the night before.
We wake up, drink the stale pint of water that drunk-us has kindly left by the bed for the next morning’s inevitable dry mouth, and start to scan the pages of The Wigan Observer. If we’re lucky enough to find a photograph of our friend in a drunken state and embarrassing fancy dress, we take a quick photo on our phone. Our choices are: bank the photo for later (to use as blackmail at some point), or upload it to Facebook for the whole town to see. The trick is to do all of this while keeping one eye on your Facebook notifications, ready to delete anything that friends upload in an attempt to shame you. Remember: if anyone’s Mam sees you in a conspicuous photo online, you’re bound to get sworn at and called a “wazzock”.
“You alright, our kid?” says a voice from next to me.
I could tell who that Yorkshire-turned-Wigan accent belonged to from a mile away. I turn towards the voice to see my Dad holding two polystyrene cups in his right hand, and a white paper bag in his left. Always one to greet people with a hug, he struggles to balance to the cups of tea in one hand as he pulls me in to his giant, bear-like body. I feel his beard brush against the top of my head.
“You look ‘appy,” he gushes. “And more grown-up e’ry time I see thee!”
I shake my head and laugh. He stretches his arm out in front of him, presenting the tea proudly. I take a cup from his hand and sip it carefully. He tells me that he’s got us some gingerbread for later, and waves the white, paper bag happily alongside him as we walk towards the park together.
Like carefully choreographed clockwork, the familiar faces that find themselves on the road to Wigan Park are conducting their day-to-day activities. Somehow, they always seem to be here, despite when I do this walk. I realise that I can almost time what I will see and when, like these people are part of a performance that I have watched time and time again; an old lady crossing the road with her bags from Tesco, a young boy, late for school and running at full speed, a postman waving to a friend as he gets into his van.
“Nothin’ ever changes in Wigan,” I laugh. “I love it. Proper makes me feel like I belong, like, when I’m not here, that there’s a piece of the town missing, or a cog not turning. I don’t think I could ever leave Wigan for good,”
My Dad scrunches his nose.
“Yeah, I dunno ‘bout all that. A bit airy-fairy for me, like,” he scoffs.
I look down, take the white, paper bag from my Dad’s hand, and shove the gingerbread man from inside into my mouth as we walk.
“I’m not a proper Wiganer though, remember. I’m adopted,” he says with a smile. “Not the same really, is it?”
All that I have re-visited today plays on the television in my mind, like someone has pressed rewind on the remote. I shake my head and talk through the gingerbread in my mouth.
“Bein’ a Wiganer isn’t being born ‘ere, or ‘avin’ a shit accent,” I insist. “It’s a state of mind, a way of life, Dad,”
He looks at me from the corner of his eye. I know that he doesn’t really understand what I’m saying.
“Aye. Suppose it is, our kid,”
Image courtesy of Evelin Horvath