To celebrate the publication of WHERE? we’re running a short series on The Clearing, edited by Simon Moreton, around the theme of Grief, Place Landscape. Here Simon speaks to the author Jeff Young, whose book Ghost Town was shortlisted for the Costa Biography Award in 2020, and which explores similar ideas to WHERE?
Simon Moreton: You write in Ghost Town about the life and death and the persistence of Liverpool, and how people – or their memory – become bound up in the city’s landscapes. Growing up in the countryside, it felt like those markers of change – like buildings coming and going – were less apparent, and instead it felt governed by tree time, church time, field boundary time, which all seem to have a longer lease of life.
Jeff Young: Sometimes I go to the house I was born in and look at the doorstep, made of sandstone, worn by weather and footsteps. This is the same slab of stone my mother scrubbed sixty years ago, once a week on her kneeling mat, scrubbing it clean. No one cleans the step any more, whereas once every woman in the street would have been out cleaning their own steps – a chance to catch up with the news and gossip as much as a cleaning chore – all of them involved in this ritual, a choreography of cleaners. So, when I look at that doorstep now there kind of is a tree time, church time, boundary time aspect. Stone time, doorstep time. The stone itself is ancient, quarried somewhere, set in place at the entrance to the house, and generations of women cleaned it, my mum being one of them. I played on that step with my sister and there are photographs of us playing.
I look at the step and it is a memory stone; the remembered past is in that stone and the memory space around it. The step itself is a time machine, or a stone tape recording of memory. Only I can see it because the people who’ve lived in the house since we left don’t know or care about the memory – but the memory is bound up in the stone. From that childhood time, two people are dead – my mum and my sister – but somehow, they’re still there. Life and death somehow become abstracted into memory.
SM: I wonder if my interest in folklore, history, and trying to resurrect past lives in WHERE?, even fleetingly, is an attempt to populate that ‘readymade’ landscape with actual people, like a surrogate set of ancestors, to bind me to a place I had no ‘roots’ in; my family were the first owners of the house we lived in in Shropshire so there wasn’t much in the way of that sense of continuity engraved in the house. I think all the continuity I experienced was more topographical – things that were there before me and I thought would be there after me – like the Iron Age hillfort at the top of the road, or Caynham Court, the old empty manor behind our house.
We moved away in 1994, so I couldn’t revisit or experience that continuity, except in passing on the odd rare visit to the old neighbourhood – my family was all from Kent or Yorkshire but these were places I’d never really lived. So Shropshire was the first place I really remember living. That said, I think we’re both somewhat struck by how fallible our recall can be, but how that important that fallibility is in understanding ourselves… Do you think that the unreliability of our memory affects our relationship with the landscapes we live in?
JY: My relationship with the landscapes I live in is close to my relationship with dreams. I have a really vivid memory of watching a man running down the street, waving a shoebox in the air as he tries to catch an escaped canary. It was a five-seconds-long event sixty years ago but when it pops into my head it’s so vivid that I can see not only the man but also the pavement and the houses on the street. It’s so vivid I can walk into the memory and become the child I was, and then it comes alive around me. If I go to that street I can see the memory, as if it is projected on the walls. There’s the possibility that it never actually happened in the first place and it only happened in a dream. The landscape becomes fluid, becomes altered to absorb the memory. I think the imagined and unreliable memory is more interesting than the facts. The unreliability enhances the altered state and is close to hallucination.
SM: I have a similar memory that I relate in the book – of seeing a fireball travelling with me as I walked home from the village school I attended briefly in Caynham. I know that this did not happen, but also I know that in some way, it must have happened; two different kinds of truth that are both experientially true but can’t both be factually accurate.
JY: I actually think the unreliability of memory is one of the most important aspects of my writing. I like delving into the clouds and shadows – it’s a bit like going into the attic and looking for a kite, and you don’t find the kite but you do find a childhood toy. You can only vaguely remember it but you start to glimpse and improvise the memories or invent memories according to what you find there.
SM: I’m the same – and I think it’s also an important lesson to learn, that vague memories have power over our present, about how we ourselves are constituted by our experiences.
On a slightly different tack, I’ve always been drawn to ‘things’ as part of my personal history building, and I think it’s because on some level I like to think that objects might carry some of those truths with them, or you can ascribe truths to them, like an old key I found in Caynham Court when I was a child, or a bit of rock I picked up on Titterstone Clee hill when I was researching the book. Objects crop up quite a lot in Ghost Town too – talismans like limestone, lockets, turquoise ribbons, things secreted in tree trunks. Are ‘things’ still something that play a part in how you process the past and the future?
JY: My pockets usually rattle with objects picked up on walks. When I was young I was always taking things home with me from the beach or from a walk in the countryside – pebbles, shells, pinecones, sycamore keys – to keep a part of that place close to me. I didn’t really understand it but somewhere inside me I had the feeling that a pebble from a beach in Wales would somehow keep a piece of that place close to me, back home in Liverpool – a memory vessel. I’ve done that all my life; Ghost Town is full of objects to the extent that the book itself becomes a cabinet of curiosities. I love time capsules – biscuit tins full of objects, cupboards full of secrets, envelopes stuffed with photographs and bus tickets, old suitcases and shoeboxes on top of wardrobes. They play a huge part in my imaginative process and I use them as part of my writing routine to summon up stories, memories, ghosts.
SM: I got quite upset thinking about a time capsule that we buried in the school field in about 1993, about what it would be like now, if it still existed – now the school is gone, and the field is overgrown and the owners are trying to build on it! But of course, that’s the way of things. Part of my fascination with looking up stories associated with specific places, like George Berney Charlton and his demise at Caynham Cottage, is to try and establish continuity of use… that people were here before us, and that these are not our places by rights, but only by experience, and as such, they lack a materiality and gain a certain melancholy; the school field only exists as such in my mind, and maybe adjacent versions in other former pupils, though I no longer know anybody from my days in Shropshire.
JY: Walking on the banks of the Wye last weekend I found a fragment of crockery and a rock like a heart shaped face. I left the rock in a prominent place, perhaps hoping to rediscover it if I ever return, but also thinking someone else might notice it and take it home with them. The fragment of crockery was once part of a plate that someone ate their dinner from, so it is imbued with story. It now rests on my writing desk where perhaps one day it will summon up a piece of writing – the past, present and future are contained in that fragment, so it’s like a battery of imagination energy and as such it’s possessed of power.
I wanted to ask you a bit about how you are telling story with images. How do you separate or differentiate between text and image? Why is it sometimes written, and sometimes these really evocative drawings?
SM: I use drawings as an attempt to speak to that lack of materiality in our lives, and try and to convey experiential, emotional memory. I like using both pictures and words, because one can do things the other can’t. Sometimes the pictures are illustrations – depictions of things happening in the text – and sometimes they’re story-telling techniques themselves, and sometimes they’re archival or collaged, to try and enhance that sense of layers of history, time and experience.
Reading pictures is also different to reading words – different parts of the brain get switched on, apparently – so using sequential images (I’ve no problem calling them comics, though that can be a hard sell to both the non-comics reading public and more formally minded cartoonists) is just another tool in the toolbox of storytelling.
I chose to work in paintings and collage, especially those that in some way evoke childhood drawings (and actually, I did include my own childhood drawings, too) to get at that sense of the unwieldy magic of growing up, a sort of feeling of being young. I also wanted to evoke the naïve and unreliable nature of that experience; in the long section, A Shropshire Lad – which recounts a sort of fictionalised day in my childhood life – there is no doubt I’m living the rural childhood idyll, climbing trees, playing on farms, exploring woods, and then bedtime and stories with my Dad. But I’m not a reliable narrator, and the inclusion then of an account of being bullied was an important counteraction to that, to remind people that what we chose to remember shapes us because it defines also what we chose to forget.
You’ve shared a few images of your notebooks on Twitter though, and I suspect you might also be interested in combinations of word and text and archive too? Can you say a bit more about those?
JY: I’ve always thought of notebooks as objects or artefacts – they’re not just places to scribble down thoughts and ideas (although they are that too). I think of them as small attic rooms or cellars, cluttered with half remembered, half-forgotten things, but they are things that have a resonating power. They’re an extension of the pockets full of pebbles and pinecones I mentioned earlier; they in themselves are time capsules that have a magic frequency and they summon up voices. Sometimes I make I leporello or concertina notebooks that are a bit more widescreen. I made one for a project about a cobbler’s shop and actually glued cobblers tools onto the cover of the book. For me that makes it a talisman, the power of the cobblers shop embedded in the book.
In more prosaic terms my notebooks are a cross between mood boards and fabric swatch books, a way to generate ideas and possible atmospheres. For instance, I’m trying to write a book proposal at the moment and I’m making notebooks that help me work towards what it is I want the book to be. The book will be about the city’s imagination, the idea that the city almost dreams and imagines the art that is created by people who live in it. I don’t yet know how to articulate this idea in writing so I stumble towards it through images, moods, collage. The actual process of ripping and gluing, arranging, looking for resonances and connections becomes part of the imaginative process. While I’m doing that I hope my mind is sorting through the various disconnected parts of the idea and fusing them together into something more coherent. In a similar way I often write poems before embarking on a script or essay. I hardly ever share the poems with other people but they help me to warm up my imagination. Sometimes I think I’ll write a book that incorporates images into its pages the way you’ve done with WHERE? It’s only recently that I’ve started posting images on Twitter, it had never occurred to me before!
SM: There’s something a little bit akin to artists’ sketchbooks in the way you talk about the notebooks, in that they can represent both a finished piece of work, and exploration of ideas. Mind you, I don’t keep sketchbooks! Any drawings I do, usually on scraps of paper, are normally done in service of something that I’m working directly on… I don’t really draw ‘for fun’ as it were. There’s a bunch of people online who share these immaculate and beautiful sketchbooks, and that’s great, but that’s not where I make my ideas. That’s where zines come into it for me – self-published booklets or pamphlets – where I can just put ideas out as conversations with readers and not worry too much. Actually, the collage nature of your notebooks makes me think more of zines than of sketchbooks (now I think about it).
I wanted to change the topic slightly and ask you about magic. When we were chatting the other day, you said that you ‘think of reality as being provisional and unfixed. And into that space memory leaks, time becomes fluid, magic happens’ – which is very similar to an observation I make in WHERE?. I trace my preoccupation with ‘magic’ back to the books I read as a child, and the rural landscape I grew up in. How and where do you think this sense of magic comes from for you?
JY: I think magic came to me through books, comics and children’s TV. I was a sickly child, often bed bound and I used to read all the time. My favourite book was Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses and the edition I had was illustrated. There was a great drawing of the Land of Counterpane where the blankets on the child’s bed were like the rolling hills of a landscape, and on those hills there were tin soldiers engaged in a battle. I used to make my own bed into that landscape and it became a story-world rather than a sick bed. It became magical. I loved fairy tales too – Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson – and the Steadfast Tin Soldier floating down a flooded gutter in a paper boat was an altered state reality to me. In a completely different magical context we had a neighbour who was a magician – sleight of hand card tricks, magic wand, rabbits in hats. We used to go and feed his rabbits and there was something strange about the man that made him different to the other dads. He had a down at heel, bottom of the bill aura around him which made him other. I once saw his photograph in the foyer of the Shakespeare Theatre in Liverpool, wearing a cloak and topper, silk gloves, wand in hand. It made him seem larger than life whereas his reality was shabby suburban, tainted with failure. To me he was a God! My imagination in general is drawn to the magical; I look for it in places, in buildings, in people. I think what I try to do is to seek a dream state – that fluid, memory leaking state where magic shimmers. And because I’m so preoccupied with memory and how the past seeps into the present there’s an alchemical quality to my wanderings. I’m not looking for the prosaic, I’m looking for the shimmer.
SM: I have a very basic and naïve but unshakeable connection to sort of animistic principles – the spirits of things and places – in a way I’ve not ever really explicitly tried to talk about before. Magic for me in that sense comes from my dad reading me and my brother Lord of the Rings, and growing up in old countryside – where you can imagine a sense of deep time. No matter how much I intellectualise those impulses away, deconstruct the way we understand the landscape, the gaze and so on, I can never quite let go of that idea. It’s sort of in WHERE? in the section where I meet a sort of Green Man figure in the woods, a kind of nod to that feeling. The other thing you mention – of memory, its fallibility, its glamour and its ability to intoxicate space and time – is something I also recognise and am curious about. Mind you, the recombination of the prosaic with the sacred and the profane always is a nice tool for unlocking some of that magic!
JY: Can you talk about Shropshire hills and the memory and belonging that goes with the place? Place seems central to the stories you are telling and the relationship of place to memory.
SM: Our relationship to the landscape and the places we move through or live in has always fascinated me. For my sins, I actually have three degrees in geography, a subject very much preoccupied with place, space, society, politics, identity, and time, and how all those things are bound together. So although my day-job academic work wasn’t always about topics like those explored in the book a lot of that theoretical stuff about place has been floating around my world for ages.
Perhaps it’s because I moved around a lot – by the time I moved to Bristol when I was about 23, I had already lived in Dover, Kent, Surrey, Shropshire, Buckinghamshire, Devon, Cornwall, and Wales – and I was naturally a bit more used to being dislocated from a landscape that was ‘home’. My parents’ families were all from Yorkshire or Kent, and I’ve never lived in the former and only spent my first eighteen months or so in the latter. So perhaps that’s got something to do with it – finding home wherever you are. Paradoxically, of course, Shropshire was the first place I remember living and thus was ‘home’.
WHERE? though is probably the first time I’ve explicitly approached the subject head-on in my art stuff – place and memory are all there, more obliquely in early work, like my graphic novel Plans We Made about suburban teenagedom – but none of it took a forensic or stratigraphical account of a specific site before. I guess the book is about me asking if I have any legitimacy to that claim, about me asking what does it mean to be from somewhere?
When my Dad was ill, my mum and my brother and I did talk a lot about our time in Shropshire, probably because it was the era where we were all together – by the time we moved to Buckinghamshire in 1994, the teenage years and semi-independence of that phase of youth were kicking in, so perhaps we were more diffuse as a family. So really it’s about that, it’s about me trying to have a dialogue with who I am, and who I am in relation to place, and what places are in relation to me and others.
As for the hill, well, it just made sense. It just was the promontory both real and imagined in our lives. Its weather, its presence, its function, was in our family lexicon – Dad working on the hill and going up there at all hours to fix broken things – meant it became sort of part of our collective psychic landscape. It just was. When we had the discussion about where to scatter Dad’s ashes, it was a no-brainer. My brother, my mum, and me – we all knew instantly as soon as we were ready to ask ourself that question what the answer would be: Titterstone Clee Hill.
I wanted to ask you about how having what I take to be a similar relationship to a place (that sense of it being ingrained in your psyche) but how it felt to have such an ultimately more complex site to examine – the city presents itself as infinitely more dense, layered, populated, shifting and so on – than a sparsely populated hill. How did you make sense of that multivalence of the city when piecing this book together?
JY: For me, the city is multi-layered. I say in Ghost Town that the city is a book –
Each walk was a chapter, each building was a paragraph, and the spaces in between the words were alleyways and streets. The margins were the river and sky and the pages were alive with the thronging crowd.
I believe this but I think it’s more layered – it’s almost like a book where the pages have been stuck together, or they’re uncut, so you can read the surface page but have to scalpel the glued pages apart to read what’s underneath. But the book is always shifting and opening up in different ways. It’s a montage or collaged site and it has its own imagination and memory. It thinks and it dreams. It’s fluid, despite its architecture and materials. The more I wrote the book, the more I felt I was becoming the city – or my imagination was absorbing the city into itself. And this is what memory is for me, and imagination – it’s a place you can enter into as if you were entering a shadow-zone of the city. I like it that the city is constantly shape-shifting and transforming itself in the same way as memory and imagination do. Ghost Town is the city as I see it and my imagination is the city. I can wander into it and through it. Ultimately, I want to go further and write a book that is a hallucinatory experience – the city as mescaline trip! Until I work out how to do that I’ll just keep trying to get the words as close as possible to the experience of memory, imagining and dream.
SM: That sense of dysphoria, of the hallucinatory, of the overpowering of senses by our own desire to ‘know’ or represent something that is unknowable or unrepresentatble fascinates me. When we talking other day, I called it “the point of Sebaldian collapse” after the author W.G. Sebald whose book Rings of Saturn was a big turning point in my own work. It’s something I’m interested in exploring – perhaps not through a specific place, but through the impossible-to-know narratives of my ancestors – and that heady sense of the impossible to grasp feels very key. I’m not sure how – or if – that manifests in WHERE?. But I do remember trying to know everything about the hill was a futile exercise. At one point I refer to it as “a big, looming, ambivalent statement, like an indifferent salutation saying, what can you even remember about me? Does your story even matter?”. That was me trying to capture both a sense of scale (little human living in calendar years, big hill existing in geological time) and a sense of that dysphoria, that unknowability because it is the accumulation of so many stories, so many people’s visions.
I wanted to shift the conversation now towards grief, and the role that the death of loved ones plays in both WHERE? and Ghost Town. In your book, you sister Val’s death is very much an important part of the book – you describe it as the central event. And obviously, my book is ultimately about the pretty sudden death of my father. How does grief feature here?
JY: Grief isn’t an absence, it’s a presence, and something I purposely seek. I knew my sister was dying and so did she and so there was an element of trying to control time as the days passed by towards her final day. When it came and she was gone, grief moved in to the space where she had been. It occupied the air which once had been my sister. I had been writing Ghost Town while she was dying and I’d sometimes talk to her about it. We both knew she’d never get to read it but we kind of made believe she would. There came a point where I just couldn’t focus on writing anything and so I put the book to one side, and then after a while I started writing again and I shifted direction slightly towards her, or rather towards her no longer being here. I would walk around her empty house and sit in rooms and pick up objects and ornaments. I took one small thing from the house and that was a tiny brass Buddha. I intended to hide it in the tree where we used to hide bubble gum machine gifts but the tree was no longer there and I couldn’t bear to part with the Buddha anyway! The ‘things that would keep me connecting with her’ were simple things, cheap souvenirs, bric-a-brac, sentimental trinkets and these resonated with a running theme in the book, which is objects – talismans hidden in a tree, toys in a biscuit tin, photographs in shoe boxes, coils of my grandma’s hair in a pot – powerful things possessed with memory and somehow the soul or essence of the person they once belonged to. Instead of trying to ‘get over’ my sister’s death I wanted to get closer to it and the objects were keys to unlock the portal. I became ill soon after Val’s death and continue to be so – trauma led to auto-immune disease, led to debilitating arthritis – and then I was also diagnosed with osteoporosis and coronary-artery disease. My sister’s illness was hereditary, genetic and there remains the possibility that I have the same disease. It was important to me to shape Ghost Town into some kind of facing up to mortality partly as a memorial to my sister, partly because death and grief are present.
SM: Much of this resonates with me – I wasn’t aiming to get over my Dad’s death, either, by writing the book; I wanted to embed what he now was within my life in a way he was no longer able to do himself. I refer to it in WHERE? as “the presence of their absence, and the absence of their presence” as very tangible, seemingly incompatible states, that the dead occupy. Because we know grief doesn’t go away – it just changes over time – so you need to learn to live with it. But beyond that, beyond dealing with the emotional consequences, shall we say, of death, it’s also about the life you can offer the dead – or their memory. When I used to hear bereaved people say ‘I think about them everyday’ I used to think it was hyperbole, but now I understand: everyday I bring my Dad back to life and weave him into my existence, and everyday that process is as joyful as it is sad.
JY: You bring your dad back to life and weave him into your existence – In your book you say this:
“Still, he comes to me in surprising ways; I taste my own breath after a cup of Earl Grey tea, a little stale, floral, and it smells like his breath…So I’ve made this book…”
It’s a noticing, a small moment, a small, sensory event that takes on a powerful resonance; I think to some extent both of our books are about small moments that resonate. There are deaths and upheavals but what interests me are those glimpses and particulars and the seemingly inconsequential, the prosaic against the enormity – your dad’s death juxtaposed against a visit to Tesco’s. Sometimes when I was writing Ghost Town I’d ask myself: ‘Why would anyone else but me be interested in me noticing something like a doll floating in the canal and the significance I attach to it?’! I’d almost lose confidence and delete it but I’m glad I left things like that in because people have commented on them and found some kind of meaning.
So, I suppose my question is, what draws you to these small moments? I remember the smell of my granddad’s tobacco pouch but I struggle to remember the day he died.
SM: I guess there are two reasons I’m drawn to the small moments. The first is to do with how I started out making ‘art’. I think we live in a time of intense focus on the spectacle, the spectacular, of doing things of note and using various platforms to share those activities. Although this has intensified in recent years, it’s always been the case that – whether you missed out on being a hippy, were too young for rave, or weren’t around for the early internet because you had better things to do – you’re expected to have certain experiences. I began to focus on the small moments of everyday life in my early comics that I self-published in my early- to mid-twenties, trying to counteract this suspicion that I was missing out on something by really concentrating on the small things that give life shape and meaning. I was greatly inspired by John Porcellino and his long-running zine King Cat in this approach.
Over the years, as I’ve got older and cared less and less about that, the sense of the mundane in contrast with the sublime, the quotidian in conversation with the big picture stuff, has always stuck with me. It’s an attentiveness to being in the world which I feel is very grounding. So perhaps I was just susceptible to that stuff when grief came along and knocked my socks off and moved into every room in my house and just hung around saying ‘doesn’t this remind you of..?’ But it’s still a mode of thought that is core to what I’m interested in – how we experience moments in our lives – good, bad or indifferent – in the face of the overwhelming weight of time and space and circumstance that we must also live in. Little rebellions, little releases, little respites, that might make a chain or a wall to be robust against the more difficult things we must all face.
The illustrations in this interview all come from WHERE?
WHERE? by Simon Moreton is out now. A memoir that combines prose, illustration, photos, archival texts, and more, Where? weaves a story that slips and slides in time and geography, creating connections across geographies, histories, families, times, and circumstance.
Where? is available from the Little Toller website, and from bookshops everywhere, including Little Toller’s own, in Beaminster, Dorset.