Visiting friends just before Christmas, we came to talk about how buildings change and the feeling of dislocation that this sometimes brings. The building we were actually discussing was a special case: my husband had worked there for most of his career before it was knocked down and rebuilt. Responding to local pressure, however, the organisation that owned it was constrained to preserve carefully the original early twentieth-century façade (which I’d always thought was very second empire, but was certainly more imposing than any modern constrained-by-budget counterpart would have been), even as it created an entirely new structure behind. Therefore, the new building is quite different from its predecessor in every respect except one: to enter it you have to climb the same flight of steps and pass through the same solid door, flanked by two storeys of massive man-sized sash windows, that gave access to the old one. Beyond, if you remember the old building as clearly as I do, and aren’t very familiar with the new one, you encounter a true Alice-through-the-looking-glass experience.
As I’ve said, this rebuilt building presents a special case, but talking about it has made me think about all the buildings I’ve lived in during my life: the three houses in Spalding that were my family homes until I was respectively nine, sixteen and eighteen; my hall of residence at Leeds University and the run-down student flat in Leeds that I subsequently shared with my closest friend; the rather grand flat where my husband and I lived during the first few months of our marriage, before we were ousted by a greedy estate agent who wanted to triple the rent; and the subsequent three houses that became our own family homes – the humble two-up, two-down 1939 brick box in Chapel Allerton, the much more substantial Edwardian semi in Halton and our present house that is tucked away in a picturesque Pennine village.
All of these buildings are still standing. Some will have known many owners or tenants since I lived in them; some have been refurbished; others have sunk yet further into dilapidation. As far as I know, none except my present home still contains any imprint or vestige of myself. I have revisited most of them at long intervals, but I haven’t been inside a single one of them since they ceased to be ‘mine’. Recently, after I began to write the Tim Yates stories, I deliberately went back to the site of the shop in Westlode Street, Spalding, where my great uncle David worked for his whole life (it is now a café, run by eastern European immigrants) and also parked for a few minutes outside the mid-nineteenth century house in Sutterton where my grandmother lived and worked as a paid companion when I was a child and where most of the third novel in the Tim Yates series – the one I am still writing – takes place. I didn’t go into the café for a coffee because I wanted to remember the shop as it was. I almost (but not quite) plucked up courage to ring the doorbell of the house in Sutterton (it was, after all, more than forty years since I was last inside it), but again I decided not to, and not only because I realised that the present occupants might not appreciate having to entertain an eccentric woman brimming with nostalgia on their doorstep. It was also because I’m still writing about this house and I want to remember it exactly as it was.
I don’t subscribe to theories that represent time as anything other than a linear continuum (though I know that serious scientists have begun to argue otherwise); nor do I have conclusive proof that buildings have memories (though I could be persuaded to believe this: I’m certainly convinced that some buildings exude a powerful sense of atmosphere). Yet still I am intrigued by the fact that all of these buildings have continued to lead parallel lives to mine: they have grown older as I have grown older; like me, they have made friends, good, bad and indifferent, who have treated them with kindness, indifference or malice along the way. If I could return to them now – really return, to be given the opportunity to explore every room, every cupboard, every fireplace – or, in some instances, either to wonder or lament at ‘improvements’ that have meant that the rooms and cupboards and fireplaces that I knew are no more – that would be a looking-glass experience much more fundamental to what has shaped me as a person than my occasional, albeit eerie, walking beyond the façade of the building that became my husband’s new workplace. As I’ve said before, place is important to me… and one of the lynchpins of my writing. I remember the places I’ve lived at, stayed at and passed through very clearly. If I could have alternative, updated views of what, for me, have been the most significant of these, I wonder if I would find it an unsettling or an enriching experience, or both of these things? And, even more, I wonder what effect it might have on the store of memories on which I rely when I am writing.