On Thursday night, I was invited to take part in a reading and ‘in-conversation’ with the remarkable broadcaster and writer Ian Clayton in Pontefract. Our venue was an atmospheric curtained room at the Tap and Barrel and, as we discussed the writing process, Ian remarked that ‘every writer needs a landscape’. By that, I think he also meant ‘every writer needs a landscape their imagination can call home.’ We talked about the places we gravitate towards (Stanage in the Peak District for me, or unlikely corners of Sheffield and Chesterfield, street names I’ve loved since I was a kid) and how (perversely) it can often seem easier to write about them when you aren’t there any more. I’ve often wondered if that’s an indication that some of us don’t truly love these landscapes, that we treat them elegiacally, preferring the idea of them to their complex realities.
This week, I moved back to Chesterfield, the town where I spent most of my life as a child and as a teenager. For the past two years, I’ve been in Sheffield. When I was growing up, The Steel City felt like a glamorous older sister who was allowed to stay out after midnight and bring boys home. Even as an adult, there was an excitement about living down Ecclesall Road, crammed between the changing shops, the craft breweries and chain restaurants.
Unpacking boxes in my new flat, I turned to the large scree slope of great mountain literature I’m currently reading as a judge for the Boardman Tasker Prize and, quite by accident, ended up opening Mark Vallance’s ‘Wild Country’ at a chapter that begins:
“Chesterfield has two things going for it, the iconic twisted spire of St Mary and All Saints, its parish church, and its proximity to the Peak District. There used to be a sign on the main road into town that read: ‘Chesterfield: centre of industrial England.’ It was never clear to me if this was a warning or a recommendation.”
Having lived here, Mark’s allowed to make wry observations about Chesterfield. If that was written by someone out-of-town, I’d be ripping the page in fury (When Poets Go Bad). There’s always an element of affection in gently criticising the place you’re from.
Returning to Ian Clayton’s idea of imaginative ‘homes’, locations writers always return to in fiction, I thought of all the times Derbyshire and Sheffield and Chesterfield have offered me a sense of redemption as a writer, when I’ve come ‘home’ from being away and felt a breathless excitement, half-sickness, half-joy, a need to articulate something that isn’t quite ready to be said. Places I go to when I need to remind myself why I write in the first place.
Our writing relationship with cherished landscapes can get complicated. I’ve had a lot of conversations with my friend Alan Buckley (whose new pamphlet ‘The Long Haul’ includes excellent poems of place and topography) about landscapes where we go for solace, landscapes that offer promise and creative possibility – these places aren’t always the same as ‘home’ and perhaps closer to the ‘imaginative home’ Ian Clayton implied. But things still change when you spend more time away from them. Discussing the effect of going back to those ‘cherished’ landscapes after a long absence, we decided it’s a bit like encountering an ex. You can see what drew you together in the first place, but at the same time you might be aware of what pushed you apart. You have to decide how you’re going to negotiate all the different possible futures: total separation, friendship at a remove, or getting together again. Would the landscape have you back, even if you wanted it?
Chesterfield isn’t an ex. That would be far too incestuous. The Crooked Spire is more like a relative. For the last few years, we’ve only seen each other at christenings and funerals and piss-ups. Now I’ve turned up with my bags, hoping my old bedroom hasn’t been turned into an office, or a creche or a store room for exotic plants. Wish me luck…