I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before: I’m not from Birmingham, though I’ve lived here for some time and I’ve learned to pass myself off.
Over the years I’ve developed a fair sense of Birmingham’s official and folk history and I’ve picked up a Brummie twang and an authentic sense of loss and frustration about my (affected and now apostate) fandom for Aston Villa. No matter what I do though I can never acquire a lived experience and innate sense of Birmingham. Cultural osmosis cannot equip me with a deep down connection to this place in bone and blood, a fact of which I’ve now decided that I’m glad.
You see I’ve been home for a few days, back to Guernsey. I’ve reconnected with my childhood haunts and found them… haunted. Everywhere I go there are ghosts.
Buildings and landscapes always shift and change between visits home. Progress, I guess, but as progress happens I begin to be cut adrift from my past: here is the place that used to be that, there is the spot where this used to stand; I can’t experience anything new here except through the shape of what stood there before. I don’t live here anymore so perhaps I don’t have a right to criticise this progress and yet every demolition and every change seems personal, hurtful.
It seems there is nothing permanent on the island except for monuments to history. I take a long run across the costal path, trying to reconnect with as much of my childhood’s landscape as I can in a short time. I pound over and around the forts and castles dotted along the headland. Their real, official, histories are abstract to me, but I have my own personal history within each. These are places of play first and foremost. Their martial origins and their place in the histories of kings, führhers, and nations are secondary to their place in my memory as staging grounds for the games of childhood and the parties of adolescence. There are ghosts here whispering to me but they are happy spirits. These buildings are untouched and unchanged since my childhood, protected by a system that preserves official heritage, the heritage of classrooms and textbooks. The history of stones and forts is privileged above all others and in protecting those official histories my personal histories are also preserved by mandate. These solid stones will stand long after I’ve gone and will be implicated in new histories for future generations. I feel comforted, and push on.
But then I stumble across a new stone, as solid as any fort that I’ve run past. It’s a granite monument to a world class sportsman, recently passed. He was a friend of my father’s. I remember him from when I was a young boy, before I’d started school. He used to pop in for lunch with my Dad if they were working on a building site near our house. I remember him on TV, representing the island in the Commonwealth Games. My running stride stutters, falters, stops. Without religion I’m at a loss for something to do, a gesture to give. I feel my hand coming up as if I’m going to cross myself and pray – instead I snap off a clumsy half salute, and just pause for a moment to remember.
Running again now. I pass my parish church. In the graveyard, my grandparents were interred and commemorated. Increasingly now my friends’ parents are starting to take up their places there too. Soon it will be my friends, six feet under. I can’t bring myself to pass through the lichgate, so I strike back out towards the sea.
Out on the headland even the monuments to strangers begin to affect me. I see a bench, a long granite stone atop two verticals. Two names have been carved upon the seat, one to the centre and one to the right; the stonemason’s work leaves an empty space to one side. This is by design, it’s a space for a third name, a monument to a potential death. Out there someone is waiting to move from body and mind to letters on stone; ghosts of the future, ghosts of the past.
Death seems to stalk me wherever I go. Later I’m driven past the childhood home of one school friend who recently took his own life and then on we go down the road, past the family business of another who died in a skiing accident. Everywhere I look there is memory, and often that memory appears dressed in loss.
Back in Birmingham now, I’m glad to have escaped the haunting of attachment and history. Here in Birmingham I only have a future, no past. Sure things from my time here are starting to fade – we’ll lose the library soon, we’ll lose Snobs too – but I don’t see loss everywhere I go. I don’t know how you do it, you native Brummies, I don’t know how you can get through a day without breaking down, without weeping, without fear because I don’t know how you can live always surrounded by the ghosts of your past.
How do you walk past the pubs that were blown up, the buildings that were demolished, the factories that closed and now stand silent? How do you walk past the football clubs that have failed you? The graveyards full of lost friends and lost family? How can you go into the night clubs that have become shops? All the spaces of your youth changed, twisted, deformed? How do you do all of these things without crying out in fear? Without shouting “Stop! For Christ sake stop!”
All of these things are stories to me, stories from books, anecdotes handed down to me over pints in a gastro pub that used to be your parents’ local boozer. To have lived that and lost that, and to keep your voice steady as you speak to me, I’m amazed.
I guess if we had our way nothing would change, we’d preserve everything around us as castles and memorials to how things used to be. But when we do that we only preserve the stones, and leave them there for future generations to play upon. They’ll make their own games, and from them build their own ghosts.