Sunday, 10 May 2020

The Sludge of Nostalgia

Being unable to move in space, I decided instead to move in time – and so decided, for the second part of my Coronavirus adventure, to make a sojourn to the town where I grew up.

The platforms at Victoria Station all seemed to have had their benches cordoned off, on the assumption that the nation's health would be improved by depriving passengers of the ability to sit down. Prerecorded messages boomed around the empty concourse in search of a listener. As my train rolled in, an urgent missive warned me of the disastrous health consequences of vaping.

When I alighted at my home town I was immediately reminded of why I’d left it. At first I was rather overcome by the empty streets, the shuttered shops and hooded gangs – until I remembered that this had nothing to do with Coronavirus but was largely down to it being in the North of England.

I set off to explore, with that odd feeling of retracing footsteps I’d made in other decades, in other centuries. Almost every street elicited memories of a childish or teenage me. In the glare of an afternoon sun a nightclub promised tantalising thrills of downtown glamour, while opposite it stood a wall that had once boasted a sweet shop where my mental progression into adulthood – and the realisation that happiness did not solely depend on injections of sugar – had been prompted by the purchase of a small papery bag of bonbons.

The Hippodrome Theatre: a place of dreams! This gleaming citadel of high culture had been the locus of my artistic aspirations ever since the age of nine, when I was cast as a munchkin in a production of The Wizard of Oz. It now stood opposite a large Lidl, which boasted a new kind of dream of multiple discount bargains. Today’s delights included a 60 pence reduction on a bag of conference pears as well as 2-for-1 deals on home barbecues.

The tearooms my mother used to take me to as a child were largely still there, albeit having undergone a rebranding as espresso bars, a sign of incipient gentrification which seemed optimistic given the rest of the town. One sign in particular caught my eye. I had no idea who Libby might be – I pictured an energetic 25-year old with reddish curly hair and two cats – but I wished her and her pies all the very best.

I was surprised to find my old house now resembled a rural paradise; it was difficult to tell whether a road sign nearby was out of date because there was a global pandemic, or simply because nobody really cared. A fridge sat abandoned on the pavement, as if it had somehow wandered out one night and forgotten the way back.

Although nostalgia is often portrayed as a stroll through a rose-tinted garden, it occurred to me that this only works if you actually have enjoyable memories in the first place. For me, nostalgia was more like a walk through a sludgy railway embankment near a council estate; diving down into it did not recover pearls and treasure, but rather the mental equivalent of old shopping trolleys and discarded cans of White Lightning. There was nothing particularly noble or heart-warming about any of the memories this journey conjured up, and largely I wished I could have had some different ones. Such reflections caused me to miss a good photo of the town’s most famous statue, so that one of the most influential campaigners to improve the plight of the industrial working poor was now chiefly remembered here for his feet.

Crossing the park, I couldn’t help feeling the fence around my old school carried a sense of menacing incarceration, until I remembered that my school had actually felt like that even when it was open. I was saddened that the nearby pie shop of my childhood had been replaced by an all-purpose grocery store boasting posters for drum lessons and massage therapy.

As I approached the outdoor market an impatient hooded young man on a BMX shot around the corner, and disappeared into the settling dusk. If I’d waited another hour the market would have been immersed in artificial floodlight and created a wonderful, striking photo, one that would have been rich in drama and meaning, and left my readers impressed with the tragic beauty of post-industrial decline. But somehow I didn’t feel this town deserved it so I took a picture of the bus stop and caught the train home.