by Tania Carver
The title says it all, really. This week I went to Hull. And came back again. The end. Well no, not quite. Obviously it wouldn’t be much of a blog post if that was all I was going to write so there’s more to it than that.
I was there to chair an event called Crime On Tour, on offspring of the Harrogate Festival, in which a more established writer would introduce a couple of newer writers, chat, hopefully be entertaining and then hopefully sell books which we would then happily deface. That was the idea. My event was the fourth out of five, the others being chaired by Steve Mosby, Peter Robinson, Chris Simms and Ann Cleeves. The two writers I chatted to were David Mark and Steve Dunne. And I thoroughly recommend the pair of them. OK, it wasn’t a hugely attended event but it was an enjoyable one. I hope the audience liked it too. And then it was home again on the train the next morning, job done.
Now, originally, this blog post was going to be about writers having to make personal appearances. You know, even though an event is only for an hour or two it might take a day to get there and a day to get home again, and there might only be two people who turn up. That kind of thing. But I’m not. Because while I was travelling backwards and forwards I realised that there was something more interesting to talk about instead of writer who’s lucky enough to be able to write full time whingeing about what a hard life he’s got. ‘I had to leave the house and no one turned up and I lost two days work and they may have been two brilliant days and I’ll never get them back again . . .’ Yeah, whatever. Let’s talk about Hull instead.
Oh God, do we have to? says anyone who’s ever been to Hull. Well yes. But let’s look at Hull in metaphysical terms, as what it represented to me. Or used to. You see, one of the main selling points of Crime on Tour was the fact that it would be someone with a connection to the area it was taking place in, introducing two new writers who also wrote about that area. Handing on the baton, in a way. Except I’m not from Hull. Nowhere near it. The other writers are all either living in the place where the event took place or they base their work there. I do neither. But I did used to live in Hull. And that was the connection.
As I’ve mentioned before, I used to be an actor. I trained at the Birmingham School Of Speech and Drama. Now for those of you unfamiliar with British geography, that’s right in the middle of the country. The most inland part of the UK. And miles away from where I was born, in the North East of England. Most of the drama schools are in London but I decided not to go there. However, when my year all graduated, most of them headed off down to London to take the West End by storm, star in a BBC series, use it as a stepping stone to Hollywood, etc., etc. I didn’t. I went in the opposite direction. I went to Hull.
My first acting job was with a company called Remould Theatre Company and it was a play called Steeltown, an oral history play, a semi-devised piece based on the lives of the people who worked at the nearby steelworks. With music. Folk music. Oh yes, I play a mean bodhran. And consequently Hull became my home for a while. While I was there, I thought Hull was the most exciting place on Earth. Now, obviously I was younger and could be forgiven for being a bit naïve but I was being paid to do what I loved, working on a show that I really enjoyed and getting to tour it round the region then the country. It was what we’d all dreamed of doing in drama school and for me it was a reality. So consequently everything about it was great. The pubs were fantastic. The restaurants too. I lived in a great area. Hull’s one bookshop was brilliant. Likewise its comic shop. The people were wonderful, especially the ones I was working with. Wow. I couldn’t have been happier.
So that was why, when I was asked if I had any connection with Hull and would I present the Crime On Tour event I jumped at the chance. I had nothing but positive memories of the place and was looking forward to renewing them. Obviously, it didn’t turn out that way.
Everything was where it used to be, by and large. But things had changed. I walked down streets expecting the present to fall away and the past to reveal itself once more: There was the café I sat and read the new JG Ballard novel in, there was the pub the cast used to drink in, there was the restaurant we would treat ourselves to dinner in on payday. There was our old rehearsal room. And yes, they were all still there. But they were all out of step with my memories. The café had been renovated. The pub still looked the same but I doubted it would be from the inside. The restaurant was being pulled apart. The rehearsal rooms were there but were now a marketing company and looked decidedly the worst for wear. Wherever I went, the city refused to allow its present to fall away for me. It refused to let me see its past. It had changed. And I expected it to – the last time I was there Sylvester McCoy was Doctor Who. But I also expected to see what used to be there as well as what was there now. And I found it difficult. Because it had gone on without me, and I without it. I saw it as it is now. And it didn’t mean anything to me any more.
It’s always strange to go somewhere that was once familiar but you’ve put distance between for a few years. It’s like meeting an old girlfriend who you were once intensely involved with and finding out they got old. And in their eyes you can see them thinking the same thing about you too: ‘Do I look like that? Really? And Have I always looked that? What was there that I liked about this person in the first place?’
And the answer is obvious. I was in my twenties, I was immortal. The films were brilliant, the music was brilliant, whatever I was doing and wherever I was doing it was brilliant. Truly, it was the best time to be alive. And it was. For me, at that time. Because, and I truly hate this phrase, it was my era. Why do I hate that phrase? It’s what people use when a certain piece of music comes on the bar juke box and sends them back over the years. Like looking into an old lover’s eyes. Like a trip to Hull. That was from my era. What they really mean is this is something from when my self-defining memories were being formed. From our mid-teens to our mid to late twenties, we’re physiologically and psychologically programmed to experience things with some kind of intensity. We can’t help it, it’s the way our bodies are. We experience what makes us. And we carry that with us through the rest of our lives. Love punk rock but hate prog rock? That was your era. Love David Lynch movies but not Wes Anderson? That was your era. You get the idea. But I do hate the phrase because it assumes your experiences are more valid than other peoples and also precludes anything that came before or after having as profound an effect on you.
Which brings us – or at least me – back to Hull. I went round all my old haunts, or at least what was left of them. But nothing took me back to the past. Nothing physical, anyway. I didn’t gain anything by walking the streets because I carry it with me anyway. My memories, my feelings, my experiences. We all do. We’re all the sum of our memories. And it made me think that this is what we do as writers. We can honour the past,recreate it, make it live again. Just as we do the present. How? Through ourselves, our experiences, by invoking and evoking them. By putting them down on the page we work out what those experiences mean to us, good and bad, and we hope by doing so to share them with readers, to experience some kind of commonality. To share some kind of truth about who and what we are as people. It sounds pretentious but really, what else are we doing but telling others what defines us and hoping we strike a chord with them?
So you can never go home again. But that’s OK. Because I am home. Here. Now. And you can bring the past to life again if you want to. But only in your own head. You don’t actually need to revisit the physical locations to do so, you carry it with you, always. But the one thing that you mustn’t do when referring to the past is call it your era. Because it isn’t. It wasn’t. This is our era. Here. Now. This is all of our eras. By all means look backwards. But don’t get stuck there. Get stuck here. And now. Because as that great philosopher Elvis Costello once said, ‘We’re only living this instant.’
What a marvelous post to start the week, Martyn. The amazing thing about relying on one's own inner life is that, by some odd magic, it isn't as self-involved or incomprehensible as we often expect. If we connect to the inner truths you talk about, we can't help but create echoes in others. Sometimes I think it's a miracle we understand anything or anyone, and yet we do. Our memories shape and define us but we weren't ambling about the world alone. That call and response is mysterious and heartening, like two ships signaling to each other through fog.
I create in order to remember. I remember in order to connect.
Welcome home from Hull.
HI Martyn. Agree with David – what a great post and a great way to start the week (even though it is Tuesday here in Oz!).
Memories are a funny thing, and of course they're often (maybe always) coloured by our own interpretation of those memories – for better or worse.
Sometimes it can be nice to go back, too. For my 31st birthday (few years ago now, a-hem) I had a birthday party and the theme was "13th birthday slumber party". Girls only, of course! We watched Blue Lagoon and Breakfast Club in our pajamas (like we did on my 13th birthday or a birthday around that age) but we did it with cocktails instead of soft drinks!
It's so true – you can never go home again. I tried, for so long, to live the Albuquerque of my past. I left when I was eighteen and I refused to consider it anything other than HOME for another twenty years. I had to have a family in California before I realized my home is where I am, in the present.
The strange thing is that my "era" is a time I never really experienced. I feel I was meant to be a flower child. I would have been at home in Berkeley in the late '60s. My favorite writers are the Beats and I imagine myself hanging with Timothy Leary and the Grateful Dead. That whole period speaks to me. But I was just a kid, born in 1964. I never got to live it. So, my era was never mine, just a fantasy. Instead I sprouted during the disco '70s, which I deplored. I survived by the mercy of Led Zeppelin, Van Halen, and The Talking Heads.
Thanks for all the kind comments. I wasn't sure anyone was going to say anything but it is something I spend a lot of time thinking about. The whole thing about how we recreate emotions and experiences is something I might leave for another post, especially as it touches on one of my pet peeves, method acting.
But the whole idea of recreating the past through invoking place or objects does fascinate me. The way we replace our vinyl albums and tapes with CDs or even downloads, how we buy DVDs of TV shows and movies we used to love, how we re-read books that summon up a certain time or place. Are we trying to reconnect with our younger selves? Turn back time? Take refuge? Yeah. All that.
Talking Heads, Stephen? They were my band too. And still are. David Byrne is still fantastic live, but then he's an artist who's continued to grow so it doesn't feel like you're going to see a nostalgia act.
First of all, agree about David Byrne – that performance tour he did a few years ago was spectacular AND new.
Martyn, we had the same life. I wish I could have done shows with you!
I have to say I'm with Steve – my era was before my time, the 60's, but it was still quite alive and well once I hit Berkeley for college, and still is in parts of the Bay Area, thank God!
Alex, doing shows together? That would have been fantastic . . .