Wednesday, 4 April 2018


(By Scrantlefish with apologies to Proust)

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there” according to LP Hartley’s famous opening line in ‘The Go-Between.’ I had cause recently to observe that foreign country first hand. Returning to former abodes is always a strange experience, no matter how long or short the time elapsed. The initial return may see familiar faces and places but, as Hartley suggests, it’s not quite as before. The names and the sights may be the same but the arrival and departure is not. When going to meet an old friend, the starting point isn’t that comfy old place once known as home. There’s no trudge to that same old bus stop to wait for that same old bus. The route taken is new. It’s a b&b or a hotel in a part of town you maybe never visited before or was the backdrop to a town centre night out.

And even that eventually changes. My journey to that alien, distant land of memory was to Middlesbrough – a town I lived in for almost two decades, from my late teens to my mid-thirties. Upon my earlier trips back I was guaranteed to see a familiar face within minutes of arriving at the railway station and strolling through the main shopping centre. Usually quite a lot of familiar faces. And in the pubs and working men’s clubs the same guys would occupy the same tables and chairs, telling the same tales and drinking the same drinks.

It was a ‘set your watch by’ experience.

Over time that changed. The numbers in the shopping centre stayed constant but the ranks of the familiar thinned. Yes, there were still a few welcoming smiles but lips would downturn on entering conversation as the talk turned to who was no longer around as a result of moving home or job and who was no longer with us and never would be again.

These conversations are always awkward too. Meet someone. Chat to them. Do you ask about their partner? Are they divorced? Has their other half died? It’s impossible to commit the ultimate in rudeness by not inquiring. So, inevitably the plunge is taken and in my case more than once I have seen the fallen face that tells me the sad answer before my friend’s lips have moved.

Slowly, slowly, the numbers of the known fell away each time. The quandary of ‘who to speak to first’ became ‘is there anybody there?’ There always was but the dozens dropped away to the fingers of one hand. On my last visit before this one I met just two people I knew, and one of them had been arranged beforehand. The casual encounters had dwindled to one solitary old friend.

Now maybe that’s my fault. Perhaps I should have made more of an effort to stay in touch? Maybe people could have done more to keep in contact with me? Who can say? No one, I think, sets out deliberately to lose old acquaintances but it happens inevitably as time passes.

Don’t believe me? Well, how many old school friends are on YOUR Xmas card list? I’d be surprised if it’s double figures – unless, of course, you have – as many do – stayed in the same place all your life.

Netherfields-Thorntree-Pallister Park-North Ormesby-Town Centre
The old familiar now non-existent route

And so to this time, to 2018, now a full quarter of a century since I left Teesside and a good eighteen months since my last visit. The moment I’ve dreaded but knew was inevitable arrived. I left my hotel for a casual stroll around the town centre on a busy Friday afternoon and saw not one soul whose face I could put a name to. Well, perhaps one. I saw a woman walk by. She looked very much like an older version of someone I hadn’t seen for a long time. But I couldn’t be certain. Had she been with her husband I would surely have recognised one of them. Had she even spoken to someone I would have identified her familiar voice.

I was perhaps 70% certain she was who I thought she was. For some that would be fine but for me it wasn’t enough. Other thoughts entered my head. What if I was wrong? How would a variation of ‘don’t I know you from somewhere?’ look to a total stranger?

I left it at that. So not one soul, not one face. For the first time since I stepped off a train in September 1974 this was an unfamiliar town. Hartley’s evocation of the past was now also the present.

The following morning the weather was foul – something which I could instantly identify as unchanging. Too bad to walk in – especially as I intended to go to a football match in the afternoon. So I decided to take a bus trip round the old places. This in itself was a novel experience. For naturally the buses I once used were no more. No fag upstairs on the number 17. Now a single decker with a different number and a different destination and a different route to get there but similar enough to take me past the homes of my old associates.

For fifteen of those Teesside years I had lived on one of the poorest council estates in one of the poorest parts of one of the poorest towns in the country. It was a place where friendships were forged with wonderful people, where everyone had each other’s back, where during times of mass unemployment the solidarity of the shop floor was replaced by the collective spirit of the community. A place where suddenly the sights of the once-familiar brought back memories not of the long-forgotten but rather more of the deeply submerged.

What follows is a reminisce about those people and those places of those days gone by.

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