The start of August marked the two-year anniversary of my move back north, and so it felt like it was about time that I did a literal homecoming and checked out my old neighbourhood. Despite the fact that I have – to my great surprise – ended up living less than a 10-minute walk from where I grew up, so far I haven’t strayed farther than the doctor’s and the Asda in high street, so I had no idea what would greet me on my wandering. It turned out to be a bittersweet stroll.
The neighbourhood I grew up in wasn’t a bad one, at least when my mum and I first moved in. It wasn’t one of the prettiest – a few streets of semi-detached and terraced houses dominated by a couple of ugly tower blocks and ringed by blocks of flats. But our little flat, one of three situated above a trio of shops in the centre of the estate, was cosy and nice, and a pleasant change from our earlier living quarters which were, if my erratic memory serves, a cold, damp terrace and a poky flat in a long-since demolished high rise. But over the years, systematic neglect, economic deprivation and questionable council decisions hit hard. While the council houses that were literally 2 minutes across the green from where I lived were snapped up by people who had the right to buy as soon as it became available and you only had to take a short walk up the street to find some really nice properties, the rest of the estate went into terminal decline.
Walking to my front door often involved negotiating gangs of glue sniffers sitting on the steps outside my flat (glue sniffing! Remember when that was a thing?) and weekend chores involved sweeping up discarded glue bags and broken bottles, at least until the council finally gave into our pleas and added a gate and some fencing that stopped people using the landing outside our flats as a hangout (having at one stage dragged an old sofa to the space beneath my stairs for that very purpose) or, more benignly, as a shortcut to the park and houses that lay at the back of our building. The tower blocks and flats, ear-marked for demolition, started to be cleared out, and many of the tenants seemed to think it was their duty to mark their departure with a little light arson, so fires were a regular thing, while the road outside became a playground for joy-riders and boy racers. By the time we finally moved – just before I left for university, so this was the last home my mum and I truly lived in together – we were pretty grateful to get out of the place.
(Above: The view from my front door, not long before we moved).
So, it was with mixed feelings I went to investigate what stands there now. The area where I live is by no means a fancy one, though now as then it’s an odd mix of nice streets and bad ones, often in close proximity, and so it was with the place I’d left behind. At the centre of town, it’s clear from even the most cursory examination that economic deprivation has hit the region hard. I remember from my youth a pleasant high street that boasted everything I wanted for my Saturday shopping trips – at least until the arrival of the Metro system made popping into Newcastle an easy jaunt, which bolstered the city but did for many of the surrounding areas’ urban centres.
There was a newsagent with an impressive stock of comic books that fuelled my early geekiness, and across the road another, bigger one whose stationery supplies made me salivate (my mum usually allowed me to go to one or the other for a treat, but if I had been particularly good or she was flusher than usual, I got to go to both – oh, happy days). A Woolworths where I bought my first singles and regularly raided the bargain bin for my music and make up, with mixed results on both counts. A frozen food shop where I once loudly accused my mum of shoplifting, to her great embarrassment (I have no idea why: I was only about 6. I think I’d been confused by the fact we went to two supermarkets in one day. Sorry, mum!). A vintage shop that seemed impossibly cool and that, as I got older, I started to patronise, trying to build the same kind of eclectic cool I saw sported by the teens in John Hughes movies, whose ideas of poverty seemed unimaginable riches to me (Andi in Pretty in Pink had a car and an answering machine! How was that poor?)
Much of that has gone now, of course. A giant Asda squats in the town centre, flanked by a Boots and a Greggs – the holy trinity of northern retail – replacing both the Co-op and the Safeway (I think?) where I had my first Saturday job, distorting the layout of the high street like a weight on a sheet, contorting everything around it. (Though, not gonna lie, it’s definitely handy for the shopping). There’s a pub where there was an armed siege one Christmas, another that even my hardest rellies warned me to avoid (“I wouldn’t even walk past it if you can avoid it” being their sage advice).
Without being familiar with the street, it was hard to tell what was closed due to economics and what to COVID. The high street is now lined with all the usual suspects found in run down areas – vape stores and computer repairs, budget clothes shops and nail and tanning salons. I was pleased to see a vintage store is still in evidence (not the same one, but still), and surprised to see that one unit housed a clairvoyant, though that was closed due to the pandemic (insert ‘they clearly didn’t see that coming’ joke). The old library that I loved and spent many of my happiest childhood days in had gone, though I was relieved to see it hasn’t been closed, as so many have, just moved into a mixed-use community centre.
(The block where I used to live. My living room would have been right above The Sun).
There’s an eerie dislocation walking around a neighbourhood you used to know so intimately, one that is both dramatically changed and in places still the same. I spent the first 18 years of my life here: my feet knew the way past my old infants and junior school, remembered short cuts through streets where friends had lived (I couldn’t recall who, even though the name of the streets rang like a bell in my memory). Many of the routes of my youth had been closed now, albeit mostly, I was pleased to see, for good reasons. A wasteland that I’d used as a shortcut through the flats to get to my house had been fenced off as a playing field; the brutalist architecture I grew up surrounded by was now rows of pleasant looking new-builds. The tower blocks were demolished decades ago as unsafe – and not just because some of the unrulier residents used to drop burning newspapers from their balconies for fun, aimed at the patrons of the pub underneath, which still stands, now unmolested – and the land where they stood was now neat patches of green.
The shops I lived above were still standing. They even were still in a similar arrangement – off-licence, grocer, Chinese takeaway / chip shop, with a pub on the block next door, even though all of these were under new management. Looking at them, I felt a flood of memories, a lifetime rushing back at me, and I stood and took some photos, hoping that no one would see.
That time a man chatted me up in the queue for late night chips and wouldn’t quit till I accepted his phone number, then unbeknownst to me, followed me back to my house from the chippie. I still remember with a lurch of my stomach the vivid terror of hearing footsteps on the walkway behind me in the dark – a walkway no one would have any reason to be on but me – stumbling up the stairs, fumbling with my keys and slamming the door behind me, sagging against it in relief at having reached safety, only for him to knock on the door and go, “you never gave me your number back!” Dude, there was a pretty obvious reason for that.
The weekend my mum left me and my older best friend alone for the first time – since my bestie was three years older, she was strictly speaking, ‘babysitting’ – and we spent all the money my mum had left us for food on Duran Duran fanzines and digestive biscuits (NOT ONE REGRET!). The night I brought a bunch of friends home after we’d been clubbing and had to walk past not one but two burning cars and one of my mates wailed plaintively ‘Can’t we go to my house? I’m middle class!’
That time my uncle roared to our door in a righteous, breathless frenzy, having sped from the garage he ran several streets away when he was called by the shop owners beneath us, who had heard my mum screaming. The subsequent embarrassment of her explaining it was just because the cat had brought a mouse in and dumped it on her bed. (And my secret delight and relief that, were we to be attacked in our beds, my uncle would be round sharpish to sort out the murderers.)
The time someone broke into our flat and kicked out the whole bottom of the door and the above mentioned cat was too dumb to realise she could get back inside through the missing door panel, so sat on the bin meowing until we opened the rest of the door to let her inside. The other time someone tried to break in, this time when my mum was home. My petite and polite mum, fear making her furious, chased them down the stairs and into a nearby abandoned building, and later got annoyed with me when I pointed out that a middle aged woman chasing a burly teenager into deserted tower block wasn’t the best of ideas. (My mum was always both reckless and also aggrieved when this recklessness was called out. Much later and in a different building, she had a massive sulk because, in the middle of a siege on her landing when some bloke was holding his girlfriend hostage with a gun – yes, yes, I know, two armed sieges in one story is a lot – she went out to see what was happening, and an armed policeman in the process of storming the landing yelled at her to get inside. When I said that he maybe had a point and that the sensible thing for a pensioner to do was to lock herself inside away from all the men running around with guns, she accused me of ‘taking their side’. God, I miss my mum.)
I walked past the corner where I spent nights annoying the neighbours by monopolising the phone box, since we didn’t have a landline at home till late in my teens. As someone who throws things when the wifi goes out for 5 minutes, I cannot even imagine this now. It wasn’t even a red phone box – it was one of those weird open yellow ‘phone on a stick’ things they built to replace them, so there was no shelter at all if you needed to make a call in bad weather, which didn’t deter me when I desperately needed to talk rubbish at length with people I had said goodbye to only half an hour earlier. Ah, teenage life.
The flat where I used to live was still there, though with better fencing – even the most determined of glue sniffers would be deterred, though since they’d probably also be in their 50s now, they’d likely be indoors – though beyond it much had changed. What had once been a route to a park and playing fields had been boxed in by new builds, which seemed a shame, but most of the changes seemed positive.
(My old building from the back: where those new builds are there were blocks of flats).
Mercifully for today’s children – and unsurprisingly given that now there’s this whole thing called ‘healthy and safety – what we’d commonly called the wall of death had gone, replaced by houses. A structure that could only have been tolerated in the ‘hey, if the kids die, they die’ attitudes of the seventies, this was the remains of what had once I think been a parking block on a steeply sloping hill, and all that remained was a wall that, through some weird quirk of architecture and landscape, had on one side a three foot drop, on the other a thirty foot plummet. It was a popular dare to walk along it, a feat considered so mundane that even I – a scaredy cat with no sense of balance – attempted it several times. This is now buried in my memories as the kind of thing you did with no more than a flicker of trepidation in your youth that occasionally comes back to you in a flash of ‘my god, what could have happened’ cold sweat when you’re old enough to have some sense.
The high street itself retains occasional oases of memory. The hairdresser where one of my schoolmates works, that several of my friends’ mums still favour. The pet shop I used to stand outside, longingly, trying to convince my mum that I would definitely look after whatever menagerie of pets I had that week set my heart on. When she finally gave in and got me a couple of gerbils – she let me have two, as one only had 3 legs and I somehow argued that meant he didn’t count as a whole one (though I think secretly she feared he would be put down, since my mum was a bit of a softy), I accidentally closed the lid on their cage with the bottom of her best curtains trapped inside, and anyone who has seen how fast gerbils chew through stuff knows how well that ended. I’m kind of amazed she ever let me progress to a cat.
(Although raised to be careful of belongings – we were very skint for most of my upbringing– my talent for accidental destruction (and near self-destruction) was impressive even at a young age, and alas it’s a talent that has only grown as I aged. I fell down the front stairs on more than one occasion – and since it was a flight of 20-odd concrete steps, that wasn’t nothing – and one time I set fire to the kitchen by leaving a pan unattended it and ignored it for ages because I thought the weird flickering light I noticed coming from the room was because the overhead florescent was broken. Honestly, how am I even alive?)
Walking back, I passed the (unnamed to protect the guilty) pub where nearly every one of my friends celebrated our, ahem, ‘18th’ birthdays, toasting them with Pernod and black and Malibu and pineapple, the kind of drinks you abjure once you hit your actual 18th, in great part because by then you are only too familiar with how they taste coming back up. (Genuine 18th parties were usually held in whatever working man’s club your dad or uncle or some friend of the family belonged to, because the drinks were cheaper, but this wasn’t an option for underage blagging, since everyone in there knew exactly how old you were.)
(Behold the lack of tower blocks).
It was an uncharacteristically sunny day, adding to the unreality of the experience, the disorienting mix of familiar and changed, giving everything the quality of a dream where you are in some everyday landscape that suddenly and dramatically wrong foots you by transforming into something you no longer recognise. But I’m glad I took the detour.
As a writer, I’d like to say I’d been putting off this revisiting for some significant emotional reason, and that I felt vindicated by this visit, but the truth is, the main reason I hadn’t done it was it’s a bit of a hike uphill from where I live now, and I couldn’t be arsed with the walk. I don’t have any ghosts to dispel, any memories to exorcise. My life has always been pretty ordinary. Like most people, I probably remember bits of it as worse than they were, and bits of it as better: seeing those memories played out against the solid backdrop of the place I once lived was nothing more than a gentle stroll down memory lane. Let’s face it, Proust, I clearly ain’t. But then Proust never fed his mum’s best curtains to the gerbils then accidentally set the kitchen on fire and didn’t notice, so who’s the real winner here?
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