A year ago, when I was possessed by Stan, I stayed in Sunderland for four months. I pretended Stan’s gran lived there and because his extended family had only recently been reunited, he was visiting the city for the first time. In truth, I was staying with my mum, whose husband – my stepfather – had just died, and rather than it being my first time, I was born and bred in Sunderland and had spent the first 19 years of my life there.
Frankly speaking, I’d always hated Sunderland. Or at least since I was 13 and first spent time anywhere else (Chatham, of all places). But when I moved back last year, I realised I had to somehow chisel the chip off my shoulder and attempt to look at the place with fresh, unjaded eyes. So that’s what I did. I got off my cynical arse and tried to find out what was going on. I figured that I could track down all the local artists, the comedians and writers – maybe I could write articles about them for the local magazines, maybe I could collaborate with them on whatever they were working on. I’d find out about local regeneration – what was happening to make the city more exciting? How could I get involved in that? For the first three weeks, I was excited to the point of actually believing that I could learn to love the place. I would become a part of it, I thought. I’d go back to Pennywell and talk to the people I grew up with. I’d make a film. I’d discard my prejudice. I’d re-adopt my old accent. I’d become Mayor. I think I might have drifted into a tiny flurry of hypomania if I’m completely honest.
But then it passed.
There were no comedians or artists. There were no local magazines. There was no regeneration and no hope for the future. All there was, all there is, is one soulless pub after another – they open, they close, they are replaced, they open, they close, they stay boarded up and become frightful fixtures of the urban landscape, like blackened teeth in a fading photo of a horrible, ugly grimace. Oh, there’s also a leisure centre. Sadly, over the years, they took out all the leisure.
By the time I returned to London in September, the chip on my shoulder had turned into a veritable sack of potatoes and I hated the place more virulently than ever I had before. However, still being Stan, I had to write about it as him. This is what I wrote:
‘On the whole, as I’m sure made clear, I didn’t enjoy my time up there. Although my sample jar – sociologically speaking – was clearly only partially full, I found it a suffocatingly small-minded place. I mean, actually like no other place I’ve ever been – quite striking in its negative incapability, with vast tides of the population seeming to exist in a state of almost intentional closed-mindedness, in a way that you just don’t see down here, not to that extent. In London, I think, people exist. Even if it’s often a rather confused, haphazard or accidental existence, forced by numbers. Up there they just drift through their soulless concrete cake-boxes like colossal graceless whales sucking up Greggs pasties and Bacardi Breezers, trading nods which sit firmly on the fence between suspicion and simple-minded friendliness; the men with their stone-cold, lifeless eyes, their giant elastic guts thumping through their football strips like they’re perpetually starting a fight, jutting thighward like enormous chin-pillows of flab; the women with their tiny pinched mouths and surly ashtray children, Brian tattooed fecklessly to each and every neck; and everywhere, harsh empty faces slipping apathetically down hollow skulls, like dirty wet rags in a raw, unforgiving wind.’
A few people picked me up on my rancour, quite rightly under the circumstances, telling me that I had no right to judge the place so harshly after having only spent four months there. Of course in reality I had spent, in total, over 20 years of my life there. And I was right.
Three or four months ago, my mum decided to move house. She’s lived in Sunderland all of her life (77 years now – imagine that). Then a month ago, she found somewhere in Mansfield, near one of my sisters. Last weekend I went back up to help her pack up her life, although she’d already done most of it. Tomorrow night I’m going up again, this time with my other sister. We’re going to help her with the final preparations and then drive her to her new home. I’m made up for her. I’m not convinced that Mansfield is a gazillion times better than Sunderland, having spent last Christmas there, but at least my mum will be nearer family again, and at least people in Mansfield call you ‘duck’. Which is nice. For a bit.
So, this weekend will be the last time I ever see my home town, and I have to say, this makes me very happy. It is after all – I don’t know if I’ve made this clear – a gargantuan shit-hole, hopeless and sad in the extreme. Weirdly, under the circumstances, it also makes me feel ever so slightly sad. I almost feel that I should commemorate it somehow – maybe by making a wicker man out of Greggs pasties and gasping as the natives fall upon it and devour it in the same way the vagabonds devour Grenouille at the end of Perfume – but I probably won’t.
Probably I’ll just listen to this song a few times, then come home.