Ghost Town, a reflection for our times

Catherine Cole
Jeff Young, Ghost Town, Little Toller, 2020
   Reviewed by Catherine Cole

The COVID 19 lockdown has drawn us into nostalgia. We seem to be dreaming or remembering more avidly. It’s a yearning time when our younger selves appear suddenly, unbidden, to remind us that once we were free and surrounded with friends. These memories manifest on social media in photos of ourselves at twenty or favourite album covers or books. We were backpacking, lolling on a beach, dancing, perfectly attuned to a world in which youth and culture seemed one. Other ghosts visit us too, bringing with them a gnawing need to clarify a family history much as the Italian writer Pirandello did with his mother and her story of the pumice island she visited as a young woman. Nostalgic memory is a scar that needs to be picked at to allow us to value what we’ve lost, not in a mawkish way, but by recalling and aestheticising the past, but asking whether these remembered times could have been lived better in real time and what we have learned from that realisation. Art guides us through times like this by reminding us that authors and painters and composers have pondered these questions too, turning an often painful sense of loss into something affirming - a greater understanding of how ephemeral our lives are and how important it is to live them well. 

Jeff Young’s new book, Ghost Town, is perfect for such times. It’s a deeply felt and beautifully written journey through his Liverpool childhood, the adult Young stalking Liverpool alone or with friends, searching for a past lost, regained, remembered so viscerally that the reader feels intimately connected to the child Young longing to leave the hospital where he’s had his tonsils removed or to the older man out walking with writer colleague, Horatio Clare, in search of de Quincey in Everton. Young writes that what he is trying to summon is the ‘psychic weather in some ruined dream-space, this ritual world where the cinema trip and bonfire night have as much mythic and emotional resonance as the hospital visit, the wedding that will inevitably end in tears, the funeral that ends up in the boozer.’ The book is underpinned by everything we understand about nostalgia and memory. It probes it, questioning how deeply we enter the fugal spaces of the past, when memory and past come together in that existential paradox of who were are now- is it boy or man - and to which the only answer can be - you are both. 

Ghost Town isn’t only about Young’s earlier life, it’s about Liverpool, a city so readily defined by past greatness, by the brutality of slavery, of economic decline, then rebirth, its famous liver birds could be phoenixes. Liverpool is a city in which memory is ingrained in the social and cultural narratives of scousers like Young’s family who go back generations and also the newcomers who have made the city their own more recently. History is spread over the city, a caul of memory, from the bombed out church, the Albert Dock, Bootle and Everton, its demolished hospitals and workhouses. This demolition is a motif throughout Young’s story, the loss of cinemas and houses a howl of anguish at the lack of planning to preserve the city’s heritage, not just of the grand buildings along the waterfront but the everyday bus stations and cinemas that formed so much of the city’s cultural fabric. Young moves ghostlike through these spaces, meeting again his lost parents and grandparents, the sour-faced nurse of his tonsils, publicans and the stallholders of Great Homer Street market. Young knows his city and he takes the reader into its hidden stories - of de Quincey spending a night with his favourite sex worker, of Brendan Behan and his bomb making kit, a boy Cavafy in rented digs in the Georgian Quarter’s Huskisson Street, of Lytton Strachey and Alan Ginsberg. This is Young’s city - it’s his DNA.

As well as these cartographic explorations, Ghost Town offers the kind of ‘psychogeography’ that makes this mix of personal memoir and cultural history so appealing. Young talks about imaging the ‘city that my mother knew, that Lowry knew, the strange arcades of dreamers. This is how I think my way into the city, into the ‘Liverpool of the self.’ Young is also a poet with prose. His pages sing with the beauty of place from the misty Mersey, the ‘Pink Floyd sunsets’, the pubs and terraces, the fusty interiors of too small living rooms. He refers to some of the local heroes who have captured these atmospherics in words or film. The ‘mosaic of remembering’ in Terence Davies’ film, Distant Voices, Still Lives, played a seminal role in Young’s developing aesthetic and his sense of his own experiences and how they might be translated into art. Adrian Henri and Alan Ginsberg form part of this education too, as do the realisations of who flitted in and out of the city, as ghost-like visitors. Young’s memories are rich reflections on the city’s capacity to draw from and inspire artists, just as it continues to do today. In this way Ghost Town reminds us that place is never neutral - it shapes who we are and how we develop, it opens our eyes to possibility by offering itself as landscapes and moods and feelings. By shaping and reinventing itself over and over again, generation by generation, it also generationally shapes us too. It offers us its ghosts as the most amiable of companions.

At a time when people are fearful, isolated or alone, Ghost Town provides an enlightening conversation about how the past and the present come together in us. Those Facebook photos of our younger selves are just ghosts after all. And as we look into the mirror of our past selves, perhaps wishing that we’d appreciated what we had better while we lived it, we also promise to live better and in a more engaged way when we are eventually set free from this lockdown. Ghost Town is an ideal companion for this reflection on present and past. It’s beautiful, lyric prose, its wonder at the riches of a city, its reconnection with a past self who can offer solace or wisdom to an older one - all these are invaluable lessons for our times.

No comments :

Post a Comment

We welcome your comments related to the article and the topic being discussed. We expect the comments to be courteous, and respectful of the author and other commenters. Setu reserves the right to moderate, remove or reject comments that contain foul language, insult, hatred, personal information or indicate bad intention. The views expressed in comments reflect those of the commenter, not the official views of the Setu editorial board. प्रकाशित रचना से सम्बंधित शालीन सम्वाद का स्वागत है।