Wigan lies just a few miles down the road from St Helens, where I was born. Wiganers considered us the noisy neighbours while we joked that they were humourless country bumpkins. When I first looked down from Billinge Lump onto Wigan’s pit heads and smoking chimneys dotted among a conglomeration of cluttered streets, what I saw looked like the mirror image of my home town. We were both part of the same coalfield, even if Wiganers gravitated towards Manchester and we towards the Irish Sea.
Sometimes in the summer holidays, I travelled by train from my grandma’s house near Bolton to Wigan’s Wallgate station. Armed with my Ian Allan ABC books and a pencil, I took my place at the end of the platform there. For hours, along with a group of Wigan lads, I stared down the tracks looking for veils of black smoke, listening for the first rumble from the track. Then, all of a sudden, the ‘semi’, with its devouring wheels, was there in front of us, breathing fire and sweating steam, pistons hissing and rods thrusting as it pulled its scarlet livery in a straight line up to Euston.
With its grimy river and even grimier canal, Wigan was a hard-living town – a place full of industry, where men toiled in unpleasant jobs to keep their families fed and clothed. The clanking of cages in echoing shafts, the clatter of shuttles, metal on metal, hooters, cranks and levers and the whir of heddles were what I heard whenever Wigan came into view. Camelot, once the home of the White Knight, lay close by where the forests once stood.
In 1901, H G Wells, a staunch believer in the power of engines, wrote a short story called ‘The New Accelerator’, which was published in The Strand Magazine. A pharmacologist called Professor Gibberne synthesises a nervous stimulant that he hopes will help the tired and exhausted to cope with the stress of modern life. In the noble tradition of science, he decides to test the nostrum on himself first. Within seconds of taking a few drops, Gibberne and the narrator both experience a sensation of imminent combustion. As they travel through Folkestone at two miles a second, they are disgusted by the glacial catalepsy of their fellow promenaders: a bee’s wings seem to vibrate more slowly than the progress of a snail down a garden path and the wink of a man loses its quality of spontaneous gaiety. After an indeterminate period of time they feel like an express train slowing down into a station, and return to quotidian dreariness.
Gibberne informs the narrator that his ongoing research at University College London to develop an antidote called the Retarder will not delay the introduction of the New Accelerator into clinical practice as treatment for a disease referred to down the road in Harley Street as neurasthenia and in Wigan as bone idleness. With a sangfroid that would no longer be tolerated by the regulators in the service bureaucracies, he adds: ‘Like all potent preparations it will be liable to abuse. We have, however, discussed this aspect of the question very thoroughly, and we have decided that this is purely a matter of medical jurisprudence and altogether outside our province. We shall manufacture and sell the Accelerator, and, as for the consequences – we shall see.’
Wells anticipated the commercialisation of amphetamine by over twenty-five years. A few months after I read ‘The New Accelerator’, in what I refused to accept was an uncanny coincidence, I started my own research into speed at University College London. Amphetamine was now a class B drug and known to cause psychosis and dependence. Doctors had been advised to prescribe it only for the treatment of narcolepsy and the management of hyperactive children. Unlawful possession carried a penalty of up to five years in prison.
I gave dextroamphetamine to caged male Sprague Dawley rats and observed their movements. Within a few minutes of injection they started to make tight circles, shimmy backwards and occasionally somersault. I then injected amphetamine, in combination with other compounds known to block or enhance the release of serotonin and noradrenaline. My colleagues and I concluded that the chemical messenger dopamine was responsible for the stereotyped behaviour of the rats and that amphetamine derivatives should be reinvestigated as a treatment for Parkinson’s disease.
On the way to the laboratory in John’s Mews, I would sometimes stop to read the names of the Lancashire towns inscribed on the lodges at the gateway to Euston station. The name of Wigan prompted a faint glow in my mind, inextricably linked with the smell of mint and treacle. During the time I was carrying out my experiments with the lab rats, Wigan Casino had become the undisputed headquarters of Northern soul. The nightclub’s members, predominantly white, male and working class, wore baggy trousers, star knit polo shirts and Solatio boxtop loafers. Obscure up-tempo tracks with heavy syncopation, four-to-the-floor rhythm and plenty of horns became the signature dance sound. Some of the Wallgate trainspotters had become spanophiles, collectors of rare seven-inch vinyls, spending all their spare time rummaging through forgotten crates of demos, visiting out-of-the-way record shops and even travelling to Detroit in search of uncommon finds. The stars of the Casino were black singers that Berry Gordy at Tamla Records had overlooked, along with a handful of blue-eyed soul artists like Frankie Valli and Timi Yuro.
Wigan has long had a fascination with celerity. For Wigan’s soul boys, amphetamine was the ideal accelerator. It made the heart race and enhanced respiration, provided momentum and facilitated hours of nonstop dancing. Speed could subvert clock time and accelerate travel in the fourth dimension. The music never died, but each all-nighter came to symbolise a little death. Looking down from the Casino balcony, all one could see was a blur of frantic supercharged excitement. The intricate, balletic dervish spins, Soul Train turns, backdrops and Bruce Lee somersaults reminded me of amphetamine-driven rats.
In The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell called attention to the plight of the powerless masses during the Great Depression. He wrote that his journey to Wigan was akin to ‘venturing among savages’ in a foreign land. He described the town’s ‘belching chimneys’, a woman with a desolate expression poking a stick up a drainpipe, rats on the snow-topped slag heaps and the Roquefort cheese appearance of a miner’s nose. Those cheerful men I saw at Knowsley Road in St Helens when Wigan’s rugby league side came to play belonged to a mechanised workforce, constrained by rigid management systems in a squalid, impoverished, ugly town.
Orwell’s well-meaning call to arms encouraged hopelessness and surrender and failed to empower the place. For people in Wigan, there was no pleasure in taking money from the state. Even today, many would rather still be self-combusting down the pits, since it paid well and provided steady work. In last December’s election, the Labour majority in Wigan was reduced from 16,000 to 7,000. Jeremy Corbyn’s elite city socialism did not resonate in a town engaged in fighting a race to the bottom. Its MP, Lisa Nandy, is now competing to replace Corbyn as Labour Party leader.
Wells believed that the speeding up of land locomotion would revolutionise society, that the distinction between town and country would become obsolete and that a new urbanity would evolve. The New Accelerator was a product of the human desire to achieve instantaneous communication and connection. Breathless lightning breaks, a boy with twinkle toes in a T-shirt and black shorts, and a register of inviolable racy tunes are Wigan’s lasting benefaction. Analeptics and high-speed broadband might just prevent Whizz Town from dying.