Despite doing a PhD in Newcastle, and writing about the North-East, I still live in Chester, a place I have frequented now, with some interruptions, for over ten years. In September 2006, as a plucky eighteen-year-old, I first came to this city; then in 2010, at the end of the taught portion of my MA, I moved back to South Shields, only to return to Chester for work in November 2013.
It is now November 2016 and much – and little – has changed. I have occupied six rented properties across two delineated periods: four as an undergraduate and MA student; two as a working professional/PhD student-come-freelancer.
The relationship you have to a place necessarily shifts and evolves. This is what I have been thinking about a lot, 15 months into being a student enrolled in an institution which I am regularly at (weekly, at present) but on paper (and not just for administrative purposes) am routinely 180 miles away from.
I’m meant to be writing a paper on Basil Bunting for a symposium at Durham University’s Institute of Advanced Study on Saturday 3rd December. The weird thing – probably the weirdest thing – about going into doctoral study after having done a few years of ‘real’ work, is that you are largely your own boss, colleague(s), tea-making facilities, photocopier, diarist and teller of bad jokes and jeerer-on in times of challenge. You can ‘skive’ and nobody will know, except you, and you better damn believe that the walk you took this afternoon had some justification in your research. Oh, hang on, are you making a brew? Milk, no sugar, please.
This has nothing to do with Basil Bunting, the paper I’m meant to be delivering or the poems I’m meant to be writing. But… no, maybe it does.
‘Jake Campbell is a writer who divides his time between Tyneside and Chester’, I have just written in a poetry submission. ‘His practice-based research at Newcastle University is an investigation into the nature and identity of belonging in England’s North-East.’
Can we ‘un-belong’ just as much as we ‘be-long’? I have thought about this nearly constantly for at least the last year. Those of you who know me outside of the internet will no doubt have been bored by my frequent comparison of Newcastle (Tyneside) to Liverpool (Merseyside). For the last 18 months, travelling between Chester and East Boldon or Tyne Dock (on the Tyne and Wear Metro), I have emerged from Gateshead/Birkenhead (how serendipitous that both places carry the ‘head’ suffix?) and been startled by how very alike the two vistas are. Honestly, take the Merseyrail twenty minutes out of Liverpool, on the Wirral Line, heading south to Chester, and the view back across to the skyline of Liverpool will be staggeringly similar to that which you will witness when travelling out of Newcastle City Centre east through Gateshead towards South Tyneside. Nominally, this is to do with how the train tracks skirt the two rivers in a fortuitous mirror-like simulacra; but I think it is also a result of the cultural, industrial and socio-topographic foundations that both places are built upon.
I woke up in the middle of the night last night and I had no idea where I was.
Poet John Kinsella has a forthcoming book on Displacement. Polysituatedness, according to the pre-blurb on Manchester University Press’s website, ‘extends John Kinsella’s theory of ‘international regionalism’ and posits new ways of reading the relationship between place and individual, between individual and the natural environment, and how place occupies the person as much as the person occupies place.’ The book is not due until January next year, but I’m sure that Kinsella would recognise what I mean when I speak about ‘be-longing’ (with hyphen) and ‘un-belonging’ in not strictly binary ways. How much do I ‘long’ to ‘be’ in South Shields (or Chester) and how much is my not being there (being elsewhere) a symptom of (cause of) my un-belonging?
People – rightly – direct scorn at the super-rich buying up spaces in our cities and towns only to spend a fortnight of the year there while pricing out of the market the local, indigenous communities, often young people. From the Lake District to Vancouver to London, these issues have been prevalent for some time, and in some places – like Vancouver, who have put a 15% tax on foreign investors – a sense of civic appropriateness is beginning to take a stand.
Fleetingly in Shields and Chester, but nearly always transitory, to what extent are my interactions with these urban locales meaningful? I pay council tax to Cheshire West and Chester council (though, probably, I should receive a discount as I am a full-time registered student) and my rent currently goes to a landlord (whom, of course, I’ve never met) in another part of the city, via an agency. I buy food, beer, clothes and other things here: coffee, books, train tickets, but I don’t know my neighbours, no contractual obligation other than the one for my rented flat keeps me here, and I am lucky if I now speak meaningfully with or to anybody in the city who isn’t my partner. I don’t use the italics as a plea for compassion or understanding: I merely do so to highlight the fact of my displacement; what it engenders and how, nodding to Kinsella, place(s) inhabit a person, and a person inhabits a place(s) even when they are not there.
Walking around this place I can feel like a ghost. Severed from most economic commitments originating in the vicinity (incoming and outgoing); not answerable to any vocational authority in the city or region; and apparently-‘free’ to utilise the space of the city to my will, I am able to drift through various past edifices of the once-much-more-significant parts of my life.
This is exactly what I did this afternoon, as the sun began to sink over the river Dee. The Dee, rising in Snowdonia, north Wales, winds its way to the Irish Sea via Chester, holding this border city in a cupped embrace before dispensing itself into banked-up mud flats adjacent to, were it not for the Wirral Peninsula, that other great river: the Mersey. From the 14th Century, Chester was an important port city, linking the North-West to Ireland and the continent. However, the Dee began to silt up in the 18th Century (despite the excavation of the ‘New Cut’, effectively a straight channel to aid navigability) concurrently affording Liverpool, and the wider Mersey conurbations, the fortunes (quite literally) to expand. Chester, meanwhile, became, well, less developed. To the credit of historic and geophysical circumstance, the city the visitor sees today is advantaged principally because of its declining naval, marine and dockside infrastructure. This city, arbitrarily part of the North-West, feels so different to Liverpool, Manchester and, yes, Newcastle. Principally and superficially, that is because it is much smaller, but the knock-on effect of its not having had a prolonged industrial satellite, connected to its core riverbank, has meant that in contemporary terms, the city feels much more like present-day York, or even Oxford, Shrewsbury or other cities in the Midlands and South. No doubt the Shropshire Union canal stemmed the flow, so to speak, of the Dee’s misfortune, connecting the city – via North and Mid-Wales – to Birmingham and Manchester and forming vital trade links with two of the country’s hotbeds during the Industrial Revolution; but this is a place, I feel, where the identity of the body politic – insofar as it is comprised of myriad layers of affected meaning – is missing something, and that something is a historic manufacturing and nautical base.
On a visit to post-industrial Tyneside, or to use that clumsy portmanteau ‘NewcastleGateshead’, no doubt coined to ‘Coin’ the Blairiband New City (of New Labour), tourists may peripherally be aware that they are at the nucleus of a once-thriving place of industry, but they are likely more interested in, and steered towards, the new consumer-based norms of the Pitcher and Piano wine bar, or the Malmaison Hotel, or the Sage concert hall—all of them, and there are others, sites of spectacle and consumption: of alcohol, music, leisure. There is a reason Newcastle is such a magnet for Hen and Stag do’s: its watering holes are numerous, its hotels are ample and reasonably-priced, and at the back of it all, one can imagine oneself slaking the type of thirst that could only have been generated hammering rivets onto ships as the hoarfrost hung over the filthy river and the mercury plummeted below zero.
Needless to say, taking a stroll even a mile or two to the west or east, the scars of industry become much more stark, the money dries up and it – as Brexit has shown – becomes clear that maybe the task of replacing monolithic industry with haphazard service jobs hasn’t quite worked. I don’t wish to speak for much further west of the Tyne than Dunston Staithes, itself an interesting vestige of the Tyne’s prior might, but I do know the east of our beloved regional ‘capital’ very intimately. Take the right-angled bend around the river, to where Wallsend is in a staring match with Hebburn, and you will get an impression of what I mean. Travel a few miles further, to the Port of Tyne (yes, to be fair, it’s doing very well) it will become pretty evident that, while industry is still here to some limited degree, the deliberate conversion of waterside activity from production to consumption hasn’t at all been a balanced and smooth process. I am from a time and place where all but the vestiges of this industry remain, but even now, looking out over the mouth of the Tyne from the Lawe Top in South Shields or from the High Light in North Shields, it is possible to feel connected to the rhythms of work and commerce: where the Shields ferry carries commuters; where the DFDS ferry carries holidaymakers; where ships carry Nissans for the export market and coal and tea for further processing and distribution; and where, more philosophically, the ocean meets the river, England meets Europe, and in the intertidal and littoral zones, we become acutely aware of the ebb and flow of all life.
But we’re back in the North-East and I don’t think we were supposed to be. Are we? My writings about Chester are conspicuous for their absence. Bearing in mind that this place has dominated the majority of my adult life, it is strange that I have written so little about it. I am curious about that. Does perspective – distance – give meaning to place? Do we find symbolism, pattern and connection only from afar, or can we look for it in situ?
My role in Theresa May’s economy may well become more marginalised as the teeth of Brexit begin to sharpen. I hope that this will not become the case – that writing, the arts and academic research and curation remain valued as means of interrogating, exposing and challenging Who We Are And Why We’re Here (And Not There) – but, in a system clinging not by the fingers but I suspect only the fingernails, to the thermodynamically limited idea of perpetual economic growth, people who walk around cities at 3 in the afternoon and don’t even stop to buy a bloody coffee you cheeky git are likely to become ostracised and pushed to the margins. Or, so the case might go in one of Peter Frase’s Four Futures.
When, on my walk this afternoon, I reached the point where the Shropshire Union Canal expels into the Dee, and turned onto it to begin my home stretch, I was shocked not by the sheer physicality of the new student flats, which have been under construction for around a year, but by the massive marketing slogan draped over their nearly-finished outline.
‘THE TOWPATH: LOVE YOUR UNI YEARS’, beamed the marketing guff, in stark white on red. The word ‘fresh’ appears somewhat arbitrarily (one assumes a newly-built flat would not be stale) and there is of course direction to the adjacent marketing suite. Told to love (or do) anything, we tend to question the motivation and instruction. As it happens, I did and do love my uni years. I’m still in them, after all, but how should I feel – and here I am imagining that these flats were completed in the early part of 2006, on one of my visits to an open day at Chester – about being sold rhetoric which implores me to ‘love’ my uni years? Are not the years already slipping by before I have had time to consciously enjoy them?
For those not familiar with the site, let me briefly explain a) the controversy and b) the personal significance. The controversy is the same to be found in any university city: namely, a town and gown tension, exemplified by a burgeoning Higher Education sector; the ‘intrusion’ or ‘studentification’ of city spaces (usually but not always on the peripheries) at the expense of local and long-term residents; and the collusion of a private sector set to profit monumentally from often shoddily assembled buildings which will perpetually be rented to transitory residents, for short-term gains over a long-term timescale. Liverpool has these problems, Newcastle has these problems, Cambridge has these problems. It also has the benefits and, in a city like Chester, these are often overlooked. Before the early 2000s, there probably wasn’t what we would today describe as a ‘brain-drain’ in Chester, but certainly the University was far less developed (it was still a college of Liverpool, for a start) and places like Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham were probably much more appealing to the would-be student. I have nothing other than lived experience and anecdotal evidence on which to stake my claims, but take it as a fairly sound (if biased) thing of me to say that the University being here has made this a far better place to live.
You will have noticed that the b) personal significance of The Towpath development was implied towards the end of my last paragraph, but let me tell a short anecdote to add context. On the bottom right of that picture is the beer garden and part of the building of my favourite bar in probably the world or at least the city of Chester: Telford’s Warehouse. Named in honour of the Shropshire-born industrial pioneer responsible for much Great and Good work on the UK canal network in the 19th Century, the pub has been a staple part of my social and personal life for around a decade. About two hundred yards from where this photo was taken, on Whipcord Lane, my partner lived for three years as an undergraduate, and we would regularly take a short walk from the terraced house she shared along the canal to Telford’s, to sip pints of bitter and listen to people strum acoustic guitars (and, on one memorable occasion, a fifty-piece orchestra) at the bar’s still-going-strong open-mic night. This is the place I took my family for sandwiches and beer before and after graduation and it is the place where I have vomited after doing too many tequila slammers and the place where I have had foosball tournaments and planned the future and drank to absent friends and made new ones. One of my mates from home even once drove from Newcastle, to Chester, on a whim because there was especially pleasant guest ale on.
Now, you assume that I will tell you what has become synonymous with so many of these stories of gentrification: that the bar is under threat. In fact, no: actually, the opposite is true. Purchased outright by the owners this year, Telford’s, should it choose to embrace them and offer student deals while keeping true to its roots as a community pub for residents of the Garden Quarter, stands to be the new local of a several-hundred-strong army of freshers. People like me, ten years ago, and ten years later.
The way water courses rise and fall, whether over days or centuries, in line with tidal pull, pollution and other environmental and human-based factors, has always fascinated me. Strolling beside the Dee and the Shropshire Union canal today, I had in mind the thought that my connection to this place would seem to be ebbing. With no ‘work’ here and no other reason to stay than my partner’s job, it might be the case that, just as in 2010, we soon leave this walled city, with its views over to Wales. There is beauty here: of a traditionally British kind, yes – all Tudor buildings, lazy river cruises with high tea and compact cathedrals – and it is probably a beauty borne of historical, geographic and cultural happenstance. It is different to what I know intimately, in the North-East, and I don’t sit in places like Telford’s anywhere near as often as I ought anymore, but the student flats opposite are I think tied into that: they speak of a new generation of incomers (and some locals): people who will be paying a huge deal more than me, to study and live here, and who, maybe, might be from other riversides, and who might, in 2026, walk down by the Dee and think about what has flown away, passed on; and also what has remained, silted and shored up, safe, secure, permanent.