Of the seven hundred or so courts and yards that once criss-crossed the map of old Norwich, few remain. Their pictorial names – Unicorn Yard, Lock and Key Yard, Queen of Hungary Yard – bear witness to a way of life that has long receded into history. They sprang up over centuries, crammed into the gardens of inner-city merchants keen to capitalise on income from rents, and all but disappeared when new council housing was built outside the city walls in the early twentieth century.
The ‘public health emergency’ caused by these crowded living spaces was brought to a head by the floods of 1912, swirling into public attention on a tide of dirty water. In my research for this song, I read the concerned voices and clarion calls to action that filled the local newspapers, alongside many middle-class people who were genuinely surprised by the bravery and solidarity of the yards’ residents in the face of adversity. The word ‘slum’, then as now, provides a convenient short-cut to moral panic and inevitably creates increased opportunities for policing the poor.
True, many of the courts and yards were filthy and claustrophobic, with their single communal drains and overflowing privies; life in these poorly-maintained, back-to-back cottages was a constant battle against dirt and disease. But many were miniature communities, proudly upheld, with shops, clubs and societies. Residents sallied forth on fishing expeditions and enjoyed communal Christmas dinners around long tables in the open air.
In this song about a family living in a typical north city yard, I wanted to capture this sense of pride and defiance without minimising the hardships or romanticising lives lived in poverty. Alongside my musician son Noah, we wrote a tune we hoped reflected this dual purpose. We also called in a little help from Oscar Wilde, whose famous phrase about star-gazing, even while standing in the gutter, provided the perfect sentiment for the hard-pressed but undaunted occupants of Moon and Stars Yard.
By Mags Chalcraft-Islam