Grief of Place
An article previously written for Now Then Magazine, my most personal yet and an obituary of a town, rather than a person.
I arrive at my Auntie’s funeral an hour ahead of the rest of the family and to stave off the chill of the air I decide to walk around the town; a tiny Northern town much like any other, a place where I spent most weekends of my youth at my Grandmother’s pebble-dashed council house. My life’s knowledge of the place was really limited to my Grandmother’s street, the toy shop, and the graveyard where my Nan and I would talk to my Grandad’s gravestone whilst she proudly washed it down. We explored much further of course but these are the only places I committed to memory and could point out to you now on a map - everywhere else was an adventure of anonymity; a walk in a nameless forest, a mysterious country lane where my doll fell under the tyres of a car. My world was contained within a few hundred metres and my boundaries were marked, not by street names, but by a tree or a lamppost and so it shall remain nameless in this: its obituary.
My Nan had died a year before my Auntie and her house, which I have to pass on route from the railway station, is now occupied by a young family. It struck me, as I imagined new life in the old building, how her walls, once covered in that textured Anaglypta wallpaper which I’d take so much pleasure from pushing the crescent tip of my thumbnail into, were likely smooth and modernised and that my last ties with the town were being cremated later today - I’d never come here again. This was a new grief. A grief of brick and stone, dated shopping precincts, antiquated corner shops, and railway tracks leading away from me into a town and time intangible.
I first of all visit the library - the modernist block of ghostly-grey brick that even as a child seemed little taller than I was, and has a smell never replicated in any building I’ve been in since. It was here the most radical change of the town played out before me; a train carriage had been attached to the rear of the building serving as both an innovative extension and as a museum commemorating the town’s railway. Next I approached the precinct, a cluster of shops that I had always eyed with suspicion for in the precinct there was no toyshop, no sweet shop and no one my Nan deemed worthy of showing me off to. I thought that now, at the age of thirty, it was time to pay the place a visit. You can imagine it - a precinct like any other; fairly brutal in its 60s modernity and darker now than the planners’ untainted vision of it. The precinct is much like the library in its minute stature yet I’m surprised to notice that there’s an upper floor. Dashing up a staircase at the rear of the grounds the private mezzanine level reveals itself as a cluster of squat, little flats with net-curtained windows and all the space and intricacy of a shipping container.
I don’t have time to go any further than that, other than an intuitive visit to the corner shop where I stand at the magazine rack as if hypnotised - searching for my out of print adolescence in the pages of Mizz, Sugar and Smash Hits magazines only to be brought back to my thirties in those of Cosmopolitan and Vogue. The bell jar of nostalgia is already cracking, and that’s why I’ll never return.
Technology, or serendipity, is on my side on this one - Google’s Street View cars have neglected to drive down my Grandmother’s street; you can just glimpse the neighbours’ windows in the distance as the car drives on by, but her own house is obscured by the bloom and berries of a Rowan tree thus suspending the street of my childhood in all its pebble-dashed glory.
In Portuguese, and in Welsh, the words “Saudade” and “Hiraeth” come close to defining this grief of place, and in Brazil the feeling is recognised with an official Saudade celebration every January 30th.
Originally published in Now Then, Issue 6