Near me are landscapes that have hundreds and hundreds of years of history draped across them, if you know what to look for and where to look it is fairly straight forward to find Roman or Bronze Age features in the landscape. Things do disappear though given enough time, either by erosion or human influence. Cities though are another matter, things can change in less that a generation, buildings are knocked down and replaced with another badly designed eyesore.
But if you know where to look in a city, especially one that you grew up in, a form of your past life can be found. Even though it may have been a while since you last walked down them, a walk down a little-used back alley that you last saw 20 years ago can fire those memory neurons in the brain in unexpected ways. Jeff Young’s stamping grounds as a child were the streets of Liverpool and in Ghost Town (does anyone hear the song that The Specials sung with those two words?). Beginning with a pile of photos that are spread out over the kitchen table, of his past life, he sees faded images of buildings that might still be there and smiling relatives who almost certainly aren’t now.
It brings back memories of sitting in his grandparents home, seeing the Christmas decorations around a room with no ceiling, but it was hardly surprising because the house was more or less derelict. His grandfather was a butcher by trade and one of those hard men who had spent a lifetime with horses and lived by his own rules. Just thinking of him bought back happy memories of sitting in the kitchen learning swear words.
He talks of the time he fell off his bike and on arriving home, was not allowed in the house as his dad had had an accident. He could still remember finding dead animals, playing truant and days spent down by the canal after they had moved from the city to Maghull. By the age of 16, he had flunked school and ended up as a packer in a warehouse. He manages to avoid the casual violent episodes that were taking place, drinking in back street pubs and wandering the streets supposedly delivering post to other offices.
Returning to those streets many years and a lifetime of experience later brings all these fragments of his past back, but time is messing with his memory and the significant events were blurring and moving on the timeline. He walks the streets of his past with Horatio Clare, fighting the bitter wind by fortifying themselves with rum and Guinness trying to locate the ghostly presence of Thomas de Quincey.
The cobbled streets still framed the emptiness, but there was no one left to walk through the flames, no photographer to capture the city as it once was. Just grandad walking through a city that is no longer there.
I am slightly ashamed to say that Liverpool is a city that I have been past many times and not ever visited. Yet from the beautiful prose in Young’s book it sounds a really dynamic place, that oozes history from every crack. His memories of past events are quite distinctive and in his writing, they have retained their sharpness without being softened by time nor coloured by nostalgia. It was seeing the photos that prompted Young to go out and walk around the streets of Liverpool that meant so much as he was growing up. The book does jump back and forwards in time, as he stands in front of a building in the present day he is immediately taken back to a memory from three decades ago in the same spot, and he doe it in a way that you don’t feel disjointed. The buildings in Liverpool are quite spectacular, and the photos in the book add to the atmosphere of the place.
Paul Cheney 4/3*
Ghost Town by Jeff Young
978-1-908213-78-5 Little Toller Hardback February 2020