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Friday, 19 September 2014

The Return of a Native: In search of times past

‘The sea lost nothing of the swallowing identity of its great outer mass of waters in the emphatic, individual character of each particular wave. Each wave, as it rolled upon the high-pebbled beach, was an epitome of the whole body of the sea, and carried with it all the vast mysterious quality of the earth’s most ancient antagonist.’
John Cowper Powys: Weymouth Sands (p3)

Powysian Weymouth
The Spire of St John's Church

Number 11, Brunswick Terrace

The Jubilee Clock

The King's Statue
It’s a little known fact – and there’s no reason why it should be widely known – that I was born not among the green pastures and verdant vales of Wessex but within the urban sprawl of 1960s Nottingham. The city hospital, to be precise, and a breach birth. Which, determinists might say, probably explains everything.
Apart from a continued tendency to ‘flatten’ my vowels, very little evidence remains of my ‘northern’ inheritance[1]. My family left Nottinghamshire for the East Midlands and then the Home Counties when I was barely five years old and, with the exception of a couple of visits, I’ve never been back.
If you were to ask me where I come from I’d feign indifference and claim that as I’ve lived in a long list of locations I am, to all extents and purposes, essentially rootless. I’d insist that, in effect, place has had a minimal impact upon my identity which given my status as a geographer of place and culture would be absolute bollox – if you’ll forgive me straying into non-academic vernacular.
But if you pushed me a little harder – ‘yes, but you must have a place you consider home’ – I’d invariably reply ‘Weymouth’ and my already prominent nose would extend itself by another millimetre or two. And this despite the fact that, in terms of quantity, I’ve lived more years in Edinburgh and that I hadn’t set foot in Weymouth until I’d reached the tender age of 18.
You can take the adolescent out of Weymouth but you can’t Weymouth out of the adolescent: it was a murky morning in October 1983; the eighties were getting into full stride and Weymouth represented something completely ‘other’ and ‘exotic’ compared to my mundane, non-descript existence in the Home Counties. An abysmal set of ‘A’ level results directed me to the indolent Portakabins of the Dorset Institute of Higher Education rather than the ivory towers of ... erm ... Hatfield Polytechnic.
Sometimes failure is the best policy; I hate to think what sort of creature I might’ve become had I followed the Hatfield Poly route. It’s almost as if the deities who deal with space and place got together and created, in Weymouth, a town just for me.
And John Cowper Powys. I’d been for a term or two before I came across his seminal novel, Weymouth Sands. I don’t think any book – fiction or non-fiction – has resonated so precisely with my emotions; emotions which were, at the time, playing merry havoc with my gendered identity. The Gods of space and place might have crafted a town just for me; Mr Powys might well have written his opus for me and me alone. As Glen Cavaliero wrote: ‘[Weymouth Sands] is preoccupied with human failure, and with the way in which those who fail in life can come to terms with it and themselves ... All the characters of the book are in their several ways lost or astray; bewildered, tormented people, like flotsam thrown up on the shore ...’(Cavaliero 1973:79).
Powys’ evocation of his phantasmal Weymouth reads like a litany in which its prominent landmarks – the spire of St John’s church, the Jubilee Clock, the King’s Statue and the outline of the Nothe fort – conjure up a metaphysical Weymouth: ‘a mystical town built on the smell of dead seaweed ... a town whose very walls and roofs were composed of flying spindrift and tossing rain’[2]; a place peopled by failures and freaks, eccentrics and nonconformists.
From the outside my 1983 self looked as conventionally quotidian as was physical possible in those heady days of mullets and shoulder pads, inside my tides were turning and storms brewing off my coasts. I looked found but I was desperately lost; my Weymouth, like that of Powys offered me nooks and crannies in which I could explore myself. Powys’ description of Rodney Loder’s secret life reminds Glen Cavaliero of Marcel Proust; it reminds me of my 1983 self:[3]
These subtle and insubstantial feelings had gradually become, for this sluggish and ambitious young man, a sort of world within the world, or life within life, and he would rest his chin on his hands as he sat at his desk in the office, or at his table in this pleasant room, and fall into a deep day-dream, or vegetative trance, in which all manner of insignificant little scenes, recalled from his walks into the town ... seemed to grow in importance, until they acquired for him a sort of mystical value, as if they were casual by-paths or hidden postern-gates, leading into aerial landscapes of other and much happier incarnations.[4]
I’ve had three stints in Weymouth, the last coming to an end in 2002 after a particularly spectacular breakdown. Although I now live ‘only’ up the road in deepest Somerset, my visits back to my ‘hometown’ aren’t as frequent as I’d like so, as my good friends The Hippies were away when I returned last weekend, I decided to indulge in what I would call a little ‘psycho-archaeology’ but what you’d probably consider full-blown nostalgia. You could argue that both are one and the same thing. 
I spent the best part of the day just wandering around the town on a warm and sunny Sunday September afternoon. I'd arrived the previous afternoon and, as often, happens, as I crossed the Ridgeway and the vista of Weymouth Bay opened up before me I thought 'what the hell is this about? Am I just kidding myself? Nostalgia taking a hold on me?' Not for the first time I worried whether my Weymouth would manifest itself, whether the town would 'perform' for me in the way that it appears to have done since September 1983. Later that same evening, walking home along the esplanade and looking out over the beach, the wet sand and the dry sand, I cursed myself for ever doubting the place. It exists in a time and space of its own, a dynamic memory that is forever Weymouth. I entered a state where, as Rousseau suggests 'the soul [finds] a resting-place secure enough to establish itself and concentrate its being there, with no need to remember the past or reach into the future, where time is nothing to it, where the present runs on indefinitely ...' (Rousseau 1979:88)
The walk began within the grounds of my alma mater and took me back into town, along the esplanade towards the harbour. It soon became apparent that my Weymouth could be divided into: 

1. Places I lived

Not this building but the more traditional block of seaside self-catering flats which preceded it. Another brick in the wall of my past surgically removed.

Number 11, East Street, Weymouth A legend in my own lifetime

2. Party places 

 3. Clubs
Being a seaside town, we had loads of them; perhaps the best student to club in all of academe. Back in the day, though it's hard to believe, licensing hours were much restricted: lunchtime from 11:00 - 14:30, evenings from 19:00 - 22:30 (23:00 on Fridays & Saturdays). The role of the 'niteclub' thus became of increased importance, as these establishments would continue to sell alcohol until the dirty-stop-out hour of two o'clock in the morning. My interest in the geography of provincial niteclubs almost certainly stems from this time.
The George. Still extant but a sterile shadow of its former self

The Grape and Grain. A proper old school dive, all human life was here.

The Rendezvous, formerly The Harbour Club. Much loved by matelots from the navy base in Portland. Legend has it the balconies had wire mesh to prevent people being pushed off.

Ma Baker's, as was. Grab a granny at its most sordid

The Malibu. Where the soul boys (and girls) used to hang out. Still going strong

The bar formerly known as Mariners. Get in here before eleven and you'd get into the adjacent Verdi's for free.

The site of The Cat's Whiskers. Weymouth's poshest niteclub and venue of choice for the players and management of the mighty Weymouth FC.

Formerly Harry's, formerly The Steering Wheel. Location of the most stupid stunt I ever pulled off in all my time in Weymouth

Verdi's: the Daddy of 'em all and my second home, often in attendance four or five days of the week. Now Weymouth's only gay bar. So the present isn't all bad.

Weymouth's only laptop dancing club, previously Baxters (aka 'The knife in the Back ')
We'll never shop at Fine Fare ... Asda, formerly Fine-Fare and once The Rec, home of the (still) mighty Terras. 

 The Dorset Institute of Higher Education (D.I.H.E.) Gone and - for most - forgotten. It now masquerades under the moniker of Weymouth College: a pale shadow of its former glory
The Chapel. It really was once a chapel but in its DIHE days served as venue for concerts and discos. It's long since been converted into flats. Coming back here and standing outside what was once the entrance, felt like I'd walked over the grave of my previous manifestation
The Chapel from Dorchester Road. The shortcut from my flat to the Farmhouse - the student bar - took me through the bushes and earned me the nickname 'Bushman'
The site of the former Geography and Landscape department. I was such an infrequent visitor I'm surprised I can still remember where it once stood.
The Farmhouse, formerly the Student Union bar. I'm having to wipe away the tears as I type ...

The Library's still intact ...

... as is the old admin block. I said my goodbyes and headed deeper into my mythical Weymouth.
 The one thing that immediately strikes me about my personal historical geography of Weymouth is how much of it no longer exists: it’s as if the deities of space and place are trying to erase me from the pages of history. Even the sun around which my academic universe revolved, the Dorset Institute of Higher Education (D.I.H.E.), is long since gone. I say academic, what I really is mean is social and bucolic; the sad and sordid truth is that I spent far more time in the Student Union bar than the lecture theatre. This was the first time in twenty-nine years that I’d set foot in the inner sanctum and boy, did it stoke up memory and emotion. 

Could I go back? Would I go back? Probably not, but Weymouth still infused much of writing and creative work. Strange how a landscape can have such a powerful and long-lasting affect. 

Or maybe not ...

[1] Yes, I know many don’t consider Nottingham ‘northern’ but the adjective is relative. Living in Wells, I consider both Bath and Bristol close to the Arctic Circle
[2] Weymouth Sands, p26
[3] Cavaliero 1973:9
[4] Weymouth Sands, p183


John Cowper Powys: Weymouth Sands (Gerald Duckworth, 2009)
Glen Cavaliero: John Cowper Powys, Novelist (OUP, 1973)
Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Reveries of a Solitary Walker (Penguin, 1979)

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