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.
13 thoughts on “Rummaging in the rooms, cupboards and fireplaces of my past…”
Some very interesting and moving thoughts
Thanks, Margaret. There’s something unreachable about the modern versions of our previous homes, not just that they have new locks, either. The vestiges of previous owners, even in decorations, are gradually erased as the inanimate takes on a new life, ironically enough.
Oh, Christina, you have really set me thinking about places I’ve lived, in different countries and different stages of my life. Although I’m curious about how some buildings look now (if they’re still standing), I wonder if it may be better for me to remember them as they were (and as I was, too…) Thanks for such a thought-provoking piece, and one which lends itself to what I always feel is a contemplative time of year.
Hello, Charlotte. Isn’t it strange how our lives are bound up with the buildings we live in? I’m sure you’re right – the memories of the places as they were are somehow much more potent than the places they (may) have become. Our own modernity also makes our pasts unreachable. Lovely to welcome you here again. Happy new year to you both. 🙂
Thank you 😊 Every good wish to you for a happy, healthy and creative new year
As Charlotte says, very thought-provoking, Christina. I wonder, though, if re-visiting a former home or place that has been important to us can really disturb the memories we have. A couple of years ago I had occasion to re-visit my old home in Dorset. It is much changed, but I still found myself remembering things as I thought they used to be and in fact, it brought back impressions long forgotten. What has surprised me more is finding old photos of the place and realising my memories have altered things too. The old photos cannot lie, but it seems I have overlaid a somewhat romantic gloss on the way things really were and recall other things that were not there at all 🙂
As usual, Valerie, you are spot on with your comment about how our memories re-work the reality and make something else of the past. We are creative, I think, in this respect. People with the same experiences have different versions of them, as witness statements for accidents frequently show, and even photographs can ‘lie’. I’m reminded of the opening to L.P. Hartley’s ‘The Go-Between’: ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.’ Yet we understand in principle what the past is all about… and I believe that’s what matters.
That quote really touches my chords, Christina. Thank you!
I’ve tried to return to places I have lived but can’t face the rot. Some of it of my own making.
Not good with yesterday. Better with tomorrow. Have been known to say yesterday didn’t even exist. Have been known to lie about what did exist.
Fiction: not for amateurs. There’s a price.
Loved the post though.
Thank you, Jack, for both of these comments! You have a wonderful way of expressing your point of view and your personality and attitudes spring instantly and engagingly into life. As always, I relish your visits here. May I wish you a very happy new year. 🙂
Great post Christina. Got me thinking of all the buildings I’ve grown up with. I do get nostalgic, when I take my boys for a drive round my old hometown. The past is a powerful draw!
Hello, George. I’m delighted to welcome you here. Thank you for your comment – we have all kinds of emotions tied up in the buildings of our past and, yes, we take our children down the lane to them! 🙂