All Hail West Texas 007: Country Matters
I had intended to write a follow up to THIS blog entry I wrote a few summers back; I’d hoped to wander round my hometown on market day with a digital SLR, a notepad, and the intention of documenting the sad decay of the average small town. Then my camera ran out of battery so I got a lift to an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet in Norwich instead. The original plan was to take photos in the exact same locations as I had all those years ago, to see what, if anything, had changed. I knew that little would have done, and the exercise felt a tad smug, a little too knowing, but it would have passed a morning and I felt that I was still capable of coming up with gently funny epithets about rubbish pubs and tatty tat-shops.
That pretty much nothing had changed felt like a kind of justification for the feelings of frustration. Because I saw the same people walking round the same shops I felt happy enough to continue my belief that it’s a dead end hellhole.
There were a few changes though. More shops had shut, the Connexions advice centre had ceased to be a place where hoodie and eyeliner clad teens congregated and took photos of each other for Facebook – this is directly due to David Cameron’s Broken Britain, by the way- and the town felt a little sadder, a little more down on its luck. The most obvious example of this was the demolition of the former baked bean factory a few metres away from my house. Whilst it had been in a state of decay for the last decade or so, to see it actually deleted from the landscape, to see a mass of debris where once great quantities of beans were produced, never fails to shock me after I alight from the train station. That one is now afforded an interesting view of Baker’s building merchants, the odd stationary carriage, and some gas pipes, doesn’t really make up for the sense of Fallout style post-apocalypse.
A more positive change that I noticed on my walk came in the library. Though the library was relatively good to me as a teenager, there was always a sense of missingness, some book or other that I couldn’t get my hands on. An impotent rage would build inside me when I found that instead of novels by Martin Amis or Kurt Vonnegut they stocked unauthorised biographies of Lily Allen and Mel Giedroyc’s pregnancy diary. “Where is the literature?” I would ask. I wouldn’t ask this out loud, mainly because I’d been using the service since I was four or so and didn’t want to cause a scene. I’d often have to leave shortly after I’d entered because an elderly fellow – a man I saw this very week – would stroll in stinking violently, vehemently of piss. The library now, though, seems to have employed someone with an active interest in contemporary literary fiction. I found three Raymond Carver collections. Three Raymond Carver collections in a rural library. How wonderful! I also picked up, by chance, a David Sedaris book, When You Are Engulfed in Flames, which I have subsequently fallen in love with. It seems now that a disaffected youth with pretension on his side could borrow a decent selection of books and form the kind of half-baked opinions on literature as a whole that I had to sort of conjure up from the reviews section of newspapers. Before you mock, look at me now. I’m a writer with a BA in Literature.
The lack of change can be read in two ways: firstly, as is my original though, that this is a town where inspiration and ingenuity have all but died, and secondly, and possibly more plausibly – and definitely less teenagey – that North Walsham is a comfortable, undemanding place, a town happy enough to potter around on warm days, to spend winters in the lounge watching old films in front of faux-fires. And, if we’re honest, the second reading is fine. Being comfortable is nice. Things don’t have to be forward thinking, edgy, or interesting all the time. Occasionally, it seems, a walk round the market, the odd wander round the charity shops, chips eaten in newspaper by the clock tower, is lovely enough in its own way. Hating one’s hometown is so trite anyway.
* * * * *
The close proximity of nicer, defiantly rural spaces is one of the best things about living in North Walsham. Head a few minutes up my road, away from town, towards the water towers – those white monolithic signifiers of home, security, and hot baths – and you end up stood on the verge of a series of fields that wheedle their way to the horizon and beyond. At this time of year the normally silent patches of land take on a vaguely sinister atmosphere as the slowly encroaching combine harvesters trudge from field to field, baling hay. It’s an intrusive reminder that this isn’t 1950. From these fields one could walk down the beginning of Weaver’s Way – a public walkway that takes you from Great Yarmouth’s faded glamour, chip shops, and end of the pier shows all the way to Cromer’s faded glamour, chip shops, and end of the pier shows. The day before I started my sixth form education I decided to – in a move I know see as some attempt at preserving a sense of country-boy-innocence that I assumed, for whatever reason, would vanish when I began taking AS Media Studies classes – walk the section that spans from the end of North Walsham to the beginning of Cromer. I made it about halfway and came home, exhausted, sweaty, and mildly depressed.
Leave town the other way, past Sainsbury’s and the near-by estates, and you come to the odd hinterlands of Spa Common, White House Common et al. There’s very little here apart from nice trees and the spectacular Cubitt Mill. Said mill has fascinated me since I was a boy and continues to give me an odd feeling whenever I’m driven past it. The drive normally culminates at Witton Woods – a wood that easily makes my top five woods of all-time list – or goes further towards the coast past Bacton gas works, and then onto Walcott beach, where we buy 50 pence worth of sweets and then drive home.
(A quick note on the gas terminal: having driven past it literally hundreds of times in my life without really taking notice of it, I gave it a proper look this weekend, then Googled it when I got in. It’s terrifying; a monumentally ugly, insectlike sprawl of pipes and towers and godknowswhat, surrounded by swathes of barbed wire. I have very little idea of what goes on inside the terminals, but as any fule/child with a North Norfolk upbringing kno, I am aware that an explosion there, the result of a terrorist attack for example, or a simple but horrific accident, would have resulted in the near-immediate death of pretty much everyone in the region due to the Bacton plant supplying all of our gas.)
* * * * *
Whenever I come home, be it for a day or a summer, my accent reverts back to what, presumably, was its former state. There’s undoubtedly some element of putting it on and exaggeration (am I afraid that living in the big city has given me some undeserved airs and graces?), but it still feels like a natural regression. Words, words as everyday as ‘have’, or ‘isn’t’, warp and buckle under the strain of my new-old-accent: ‘Hev we got any bortles of beer in the fridge?’ I might ask my mum. ‘That int right!’ I might tell my brother upon hearing the news that a plane has crashed. Individual letters, and the resulting phonetic intonations change too. ‘O’s are often elongated (as in, ‘Are you going up the city?’) or errantly affixed to ‘I’s (as in, ‘Can you ride a boike?’). Hearing the accent spoken in public is one of the things that I love about my homecomings. I may cringe when I turn the radio on and hear a woman from Diss asking us to ‘give it some Heeeeaaarrt!’, I may have to change channels when someone with a strong accent appears on screen, but my God do I love it when I overhear old people conversing with that delicious twang in their voices.
* * * * *
Parts of Norfolk, most of it actually, outside of the metropolitan hub of Norwich with its multiplexes, and bowling alleys, and its sporadically seen black people, are a throwback to an allegedly more innocent age. It’s an age that, as I age, appeals more and more. When you’re sixteen and mum asks if you want to drive up to Blakeney Point for a spot of crabbing, a walk towards the sea, and an ice cream on the hill, literally anything sounds more appealing. That you’d end up sitting at home on the verge of boredom induced tears was a known inevitability wouldn’t deter your intentions to decline to offer. Fast forward a few years and you’ll spend a very pleasant day dropping bacon into the dirty water as the smells of mud and samphire hang in the air. You will come to appreciate the size of the skies and the manageable desolation. You will come to realise that you grew up somewhere that, if not perfect, was pretty close to it.