Tuesday, 13 July 2010

York

Laura Barton has written a lyrical, thoughtful piece in the Guardian about what it means to be Northern in exile (I realise it may seem ridiculous to people from decently sized countries that a person from one part of our tiny island can miss it when living barely two hours away, but we do, ok?). I was struck by the passage about what she misses:


"I missed the colour of the leaves that seemed to grow a darker, dearer green than those of the south. I missed the dour beauty of a region that was once the nation's industrial heartland, the mills, the mines, the blackened bricks, the canals, the way the landscape is scarred by the past – the rope-burns on the towpath bridges, the old pit-shafts, quarries, disused railways, the strange deformities of a land that has been tunnelled and burrowed and shifted and finally left to settle. I missed the voices. I missed the music of chuck, and love, and lad. I missed the cursing, the insults, the ruddy and bloody and wazzock and gobbin. I missed the sound of the rain and the smell of the pavements as it dried. I missed the light, the shift of the clouds, the flat grey sky, the thrill of a hot day. I missed its kindness. And often I thought of that line by Tennyson: "Bright and fierce and fickle is the south/ And dark and true and tender is the north."


Partly I enjoyed it because it's a beautiful evocation of the North West, but partly because it made me think what I miss about my homeland, my birthplace. I miss London all the time. I want to be there, would go back in a heartbeat if I could. I know exactly what I miss about it; the scale, and the anonymity, my favourite corners and my friends. But York? It's an afterthought. I was desperate to escape, first to Leeds which was bigger and brasher and had better shops, then to London, and after my first proper trip abroad alone (Morocco, at sixteen), to escape England altogether. That's how I ended up here. But it has never stopped me defining myself proudly, ridiculously, as northern. I spent 18 years there, after all. And what do I miss?


I miss the smell of sugar beet on a cold, damp, misty day. It's not that it was a nice smell, it wasn't, really. The more palatable, smell of York is of After Eights, dark molten chocolate from the Rowntrees, now Nestlé factory. But it's the sugar beet I remember most vividly, perhaps it was seasonal, the factory only operated for part of the year. Sugar beet is sort of sweet and acrid, but it's the smell of winter for me, new school coat and shoes, coming home from school when the skies are starting to darken and the sodium lamps are coming on vivid orange and being completely enveloped in the dampness, and the smell. York is flat, and low; frequently flooded. It sits in a damp hollow between two rivers, so the mist, and the smell lingered, I can just see how the factory chimney sent out a fat white plume of beet vapour, to sit under the cloud line. The sugar beet smell is gone forever, the Tate & Lyle factory has closed. It must be odd to be in York in winter without it. I think I miss winter there altogether, the smell of leaf mulch down by the Foss, and the quality of light and eating my toast so close to the electric fire I practically set my school uniform on fire. All that mist. It's never misty here. In my memories, it's always winter and it's always misty in York.


I miss, and don't miss, Tuesday night bell ringing practice at the Minster reverberating around the city centre. Living so close to it, the bell ringing, endlessly repetitive and invasive, would almost make the house shake, make listening to music pointless. It wasn't something to be enjoyed, so much as endured. And then, the quality of silence when it stopped was very particular; that relief, your ears not quite able to believe it wasn't going to start up again. On the very occasional weeks when there was no practice, you would wander round the house, a bit on edge, discombobulated, barely aware of what you were missing, but knowing something was missing all the same.


I miss the Saturday ritual of going the 500 yards 'into town', the time honoured circuit of streets - Monk Bar, then Goodramgate, Petergate, Stonegate, Parliament Street then Coney Street. Always. I still find it hard to deviate from this when I go back, regardless of what the intended final destination might be. Too many Saturdays with my best friend Alex, heading towards the mecca of the Coney Street shops: Miss Selfridge, Woolworths, latterly, and thrillingly, River Island. The obligatory queue for a Danish pastry in Thomas the Bakers. And that particular provincial town main street experience where you are statistically certain to see at least 50% of the people you know in any given afternoon.


But really, there isn't that much I miss about York; it's a middle class medieval town, utterly homogenous and crammed with tourists. I obviously miss Yorkshire people, because I gravitate towards them, want to swap phrases and adolescent hangouts with them (interestingly, they seem to be over-represented in my corner of the internet, I'm always running into more and it's always a pleasure). But it's more that I miss the rituals of home I miss. Sitting on the end of my mum's bed while she held court there all day on Saturday. Prog Rock in the kitchen making something ponderously labour intensive, while listening to a tape of Analysis, he has taped off Radio 4, a pile of fat, forbidding library books piled close by. Taking my sister to 'the lions', a patch of grass in the shadow of the Minster, with a sort of decrepit pillar with lions on the base, their features obliterated by centuries of rain. A trip to the Spar late at night for chocolate. Sitting in the tiny backyard in the summer listening to cricket on the radio and ignoring a pile of revision. I'm a bit sick of being an adult right now, it's hard work, and apparently, it just goes on like this until you go mad or DIE. That sucks. I want a couple of weeks back in the warm bubble of my provincial childhood, thanks.


What do you miss about the place you grew up, if anything?

24 comments:

frau antje said...

Yes, it always seems like it is a time one misses, as opposed to merely a place. Was bombarded by EasyJet ads for Yorkshire yesterday. Think of the airfare if they could offer people a glimpse of their past with that.

From Belgium said...

I spend part of my childhood in Africa (Rwanda and Zaire) and I miss the smell of the earth after a storm. Belgian earth doesn't smell like that...

MinxMarple said...

I miss the lines of poplar trees and the scary Russians, the thrill of our Saturday outing to the Konditorei in a nearby town (the darkness of the furniture in resolute denial of the seventies), the smell of a very particular type of ink-eraser, the vivid blue lightning of the summer and vines, the smell of the salt flat, watching flamingos as a shimmering pink horizon, lebanese bread with lemon juice, the shade of citrus plantations, the sense of distant (almost Biblical) history, the green dankness, the huge watercolour skies, the sudden chill as summer turns to September that makes me feel alive again, the twisted cadences of country voices. There were so many places of growing up and I miss them all. I wish I could make them into one place to pinpoint on a map and say "this is where i grew up, this is where it all happened".

soleils said...

I miss the blinding light, the bright blue of the sky, the old women sitting on their front step or on chairs outside their houses, gossiping and keeping an eye on us children - semi gypsies running amock and bombing on our rackety bikes all day, up and down the slopey street, all this punctuated by the soft bells of the white "clocher" (lovely towerclock at the top of the street). I miss hearing my father coming back from work, the engine of whatever vehicle he was driving that day slowly dying below the little balcony. Seeing him wash his beautiful tough, rough hands of the afternoon's work. I miss sharing a tiny bedroom with my sisters and singing real and made up songs late into the night. I miss hiding behing the geraniums on the balcony with my siblings and trying to throw olive stones onto passers-by. I miss the people, mainly, and the sounds of their voices. It all comes back to mind muffled, but extra-bright somehow.
Yeah, I too am hating being an adult right now. I want a break from it. I want my mother's presence in the kitchen, in the house, making it all alright.
Gah. Choking up now.

fourstar said...

"...the smell of leaf mulch down by the Foss..."

Oh spot on, me too - cycled in to school from Fishergate every day for 5 years along that river.

I also spent time in Hong Kong and I really remember the rickety old bus, winding its way round the south of the island as it picked up children for another day at school.

Until it blew up :(

JennyD said...

Oh, it's the gothic, damp heather moorside of Ilkley and surrounds definitely. Surrey Downs just doesn't cut it.

shayma said...

very beautiful. i miss the smell of oil in the market air from the samosa-wallah.

Anonymous said...

I miss yellow. Milan apartment blocks are/were painted in 'giallo milano'. Bright and dusty at the same time.

Ann Fielding said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

The smell of cadburys chocolate which wafted over my Art school during my lfe drawing evenings.

Anonymous said...

I miss the wide open spaces of the Arctic where I grew up because it gives you room to think. I miss proper winters and the sea of stars and northern lights. I miss blizzards, sometimes scary and 'real' blizzards. I miss the tundra. I miss 'country food'. But the UK isn't so bad...I know I can always go back.

Sewmouse said...

The apple tree in the meadow - the only tree I ever climbed. Gone now in suburban subdivision sprawl...

Warm summer nights chasing fireflies and running in and out of the (doubtless toxic)smoke from the mosquito-control truck.

Standing on the back porch looking out at the shadows of the walnut-tree branches on the fresh snow in the moonlight in Dad's back garden...

Cath said...

I miss the salty smell of the sea (am originally from Britanny) and I miss being able to just drop by a boulangerie to get du pain de campagne une baguette bien cuite et deux petits millefeuilles. By then again, I dearly miss my beloved London (have been here 18 years, half my life) everytime I leave for over a week. I have been reading your blog for the past couple of weeks, you write so beautifully, with so much humour throughout.

the polish chick said...

i miss the country lanes that my grandma and i walked for hours in the summer sunshine. she taught me plant names and uses and to this day, that particular kind of path through swaying wheat fields punctuated by bright red poppies and sky blue bachelors' buttons makes me sigh wistfully.

Lisa-Marie said...

I miss knowing everyone who lives in the town - I don't even know my next door neighbours here. I miss the fact that every person who walked past me had some greeting, it makes one feel very solidly part of the community. I miss the fact that if I said my name to a grown up, they'd say ' ah, Elizabeth was your mum, wasn't she? She was a lovely lassie'. I miss the knowledge that for a week each year when it snowed in Febuary, we were isolated from the outside world.

Anonymous said...

I miss:

Sidewalks
Acres of parks
The smell of freshly-mown lawns
Decent public transportation
Shops within walking distance of home
Our giant black cat (RIP MM)
My grandparent's farm, all of it, from the barns to the pond to the attic bedrooms and the GIANT willow tree

Yeah, I miss being a kid, too.

C/Kalgon

Anonymous said...

Your post sums up excatly how I'm feeling at the moment only I'm exiled in London and from Sheffield. Being an adult is hard especially when you have to be grown up for your own children. What i wouldn't give to be sitting in the Kitchen at home watching my dad make one of his famous omelettes and telling me that everything will be fine and that physics really isn't that important, love.

Laura and Ben said...

I grew up near Crawley, there's not much to miss about that town. I miss the Sussex countryside - if I move back to the UK I doubt I would live anywhere else.

Anonymous said...

I miss the ocean (Atlantic), going swimming in Biscayne Bay off the end of the docks at Dinner Key Marina with my best friend Sue after cycling home from school, staying up and out nights catching "lightning bugs" (fireflies) and spending the whole summer barefoot...

My funky old Coconut Grove neighborhood has become ultra chi-chi and full of faux Spanish haciendas, gated "communities" and the docks are now off-limits to anyone but key holders...(booooo!)
The ocean still smells the same. (And I'm still barefoot.)

Pat (in Belgium)

VikkiLea said...

Ah, the sickly, sweet headachey smell of sugar beet pervaded my teenage years too, but in Peterborough. We were also fortunate enough to have our weekly Young Enterprise meetings during 6th Form, right next to the Pedigree Pet Foods factory. Melting hooves and innards.. yum.

I'm more nostalgic for my Brummie roots, flying kites and eating fish and chips on Barr Beacon.

Artichoke Queen said...

I missed where I grew up so much I returned last year, so now I don't miss it at all. But when I did, I missed steep hills, so steep there are stairs carved into the pavements so you can climb them, and cars park perpendicular rather than parallel so they don't slide down. I missed water water everywhere: the unexpected view of a stunningly blue bay when I turned a corner, the smell of the tides, the foghorns on summer evenings. I missed the sound of baseball on the radio. I missed the giant orange bridge, and the more utilitarian silver one that actually took you somewhere. I missed redwoods, especially in unexpected locations, like towering up next to a skyscraper. I missed long dry summers and spectacular autumns, where you didn't have to really put away your shorts until November. I missed going into the backyard to pick lemons and plums. And now I have all that again, and I am happy.

emily said...

Im from just over the border in Lancashire and exiled in scotland - your post made me ache with missing home - i don miss the actual town but i do miss lancashire - the temperment of the people, how they can be gruff and seem unfriendly until you realise that is just their manner. I miss people thinking im "posh" because i dont have a lancashire accent, i miss being called a variety of endearments in shops, especially lass - i still call everyone "love" - i had to train myself to stop calling people pet.... But the smell, the smell i definitely miss and its not something i can put my finger on - the moors on a drizzley day, the warm smell of earth....

ModestyBrown said...

So much of that is familiar to me. I'm a Yorkshire lass living in the South and sometimes I really feel it. I'm aware my voice is foreign. Even my children notice! Funny really, as where I grew up I was mercilessly punish for talking 'like the queen'. You just can't win.

I missed the views of the powerstation until I moved to Didcot and the view is now freely available from all angles!

I remember the smell of oil seed rape engulfing the bus in summer. The stink from the heater and the engine in winter. I miss my Mum's attempts at cooking and listening to the radio in my tiny bedroom on dark nights. I remember now very fondly my weekly trips to York for band practise and the well rehearsed journey to the corner shops to buy fags. I also miss the annual fight that was Christmas shopping in York. The city was so pretty in the dark.

When I lived in France I remember longing for things from home. I would pay a small fortune for a tin of beans and a block of cheddar in M&S Marseille! I think it's funny what you miss. It's rarely the obvious.

Caroline, No. said...

I'm from Beverley but live in London. I miss seeing the stars at night most. Other than that, chip butties eaten in the market square, the damp smell of the horse chestnut trees on the Westwood when you went conkering, the cold dustiness of Nellie's. Oh. and the horrible sweet smell of the tannery.