Old Familiar Rooms

Blank window.

Yesterday, I went Home.

When I say Home, I mean Bridgwater in Somerset — a town I haven’t lived in since the 1990s, where I didn’t live for large chunks of my childhood, and where even my parents no longer live. But I was nursed there, went to junior school, secondary school and sixth-form college there, and so it is and always will be Home.

Perhaps I felt more than usually moved by the experience this time because I really had no reason to be there. I was delivering some Christmas presents to a cousin but, honestly, I half engineered that as an excuse to visit. No, this time, I was there because I wanted to be, with the express intention of giving the old place my full attention.

I felt quite overcome at times, standing opposite the house where my uncle died, passing my cousin’s workshop, and then wandering through terraced streets where various members of my family lived at one time or another. I didn’t remember the curve of the road or the beautiful soft-edged red brick. Its Victorian completeness, or complete Victorianness, had never struck me before.

For a full minute I stared at a derelict property, boarded up as long as I remember it, and somehow as faded and poignant in real life as an unlabelled Polaroid from the back of a discarded album. How could something so small, so mean, be so beautiful?

Dead street.

That habit some people have of reflexively dismissing their home towns as ‘dumps’, ‘toilets’, ‘the arse end of nowhere’, has never afflicted me. I’ve always insisted that I am fond of Bridgwater even though I know — of course I do — that there’s nothing much to recommend it to strangers. (Carnival, perhaps?) Hating one’s home-town has always struck me as a bit of a cliche, to be frank, like introducing yourself as ‘A bit of a cynic’, or saying that your band’s music ‘defies classification’. A sort of low-fat alternative to any actual personality.

Still, that contempt for the familiar must have been lurking, even if I didn’t acknowledge it. When I was 17 I was tasked with writing a script for a short film at Bridgwater College and what poured out was a grotesque stream of consciousness full of cracked paving stones, foul sewers, and grim reflections on the town’s sinister history. “Where did this come from?” asked the lecturer when I handed it in, perhaps concerned that I had previously unsuspected psychiatric problems.

On this visit, the same fear and loathing manifested in a strange tug of emotions. Much as I was delighted to be there I could also feel a tightening in my spine — a sort of shudder-in-waiting as my fight-or-flight response came out of sleep mode. It was as if my stranded teenage anxiety met me off the train and was following me around like an insinuating familiar.

I also caught myself trudging at times. Though I knew I should be move to be once again on Monmouth Street, for example, my legs and brain conspired to loop me back in where I left off. For whole stretches I forgot to look at all, as if I had somewhere to be by a certain time (I didn’t) — town is town is town.

Railway cottages.

Perhaps its natural to have that desire-hate, comfort-fear, fascination-boredom relationship with places you truly know.

As it is, this time the balance tipped towards the positive. I saw things for the first time that I’d seen a thousand times — ghost signs, the gorgeousness of the old Edwardian cinema, the sprinkle of classical buildings at Cornhill that speak of a time when the town had pretensions, and even the space-age oddness of the stillborn shopping mall. I looked at — was mesmerised by — the golden reeds on the riverbank backlit by a bone idle winter sun that had barely lifted itself above the bandstand in Blake Gardens.

I suppose my advice might be that if you’re going to wherever you call home for Christmas, and dreading it because it scares or bores you, or some mixture of both, try looking at it as a stranger might. Forget what you know, forget the well-practised routes your muscle memory insists upon, and let yourself love it.

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