Thursday, 7 October 2010

I Saw a Shadow Touch a Shadow's Hand

Sociologist Manuel Castells talks about how as humanity gets increasingly computerised and networked, anyone without a laptop and a broadband connection is simply cut off from the rest of the world as it steadily ticks on without them. Certainly for the last few weeks this is pretty much exactly how I've been feeling.

I live on the west coasts of two different countries, splitting up my time between Bristol, England (where I study) and San Diego, California (where my parents live). Every summer I have to make the paradigm-shifting, Earth-shaking, jet lag-inducing transfer between these two countries and the process seems to knock me out for weeks. It takes a long time for me to acclimatise myself to student life: this morning I sat at the kitchen table till noon waiting for breakfast to appear in front of me. You forget how wonderful mums are until there's eight thousand miles of ocean separating you from freshly ironed boxer shorts and bottomless cups of tea.

This time round, though, the shock of overflowing laundry bags was cushioned by a week of touring round the country with Papa Burns and the twin. We started near London and wormed our way up the M24, dropping in on relatives as we went and leaving them flustered and bewildered by our empty beds the next morning.

We finally reached St Andrews in Scotland, the fuzzy ginger hat of England, where I had to go through the heartrending process of parting with my twin sister, the person who has known me since my humble zygote days. Tears aside, St Andrews is a gorgeous town and certainly worth the visit. It's basically where golf was invented and Papa Burns took us out to the Jigger Inn, the original pub built to service the course. Here the Luke Burns Food Awards saw some new winners, as I graced the burger I had for dinner a gold star in my Best Burger (In a Restaurant) category, while the sticky toffee pudding that followed received a nomination for Best Pudding (Non-Chocolate Variety)—but ultimately lost out to a lemon meringue pie Mama Burns made back in July '08.

Leaving St Andrews, with the car lacking a passenger and a couple suitcases we made a good pace south, where I had to do a handstand in front of the Angel of the North. She was pretty much begging me to.

Note: If you can see your bellybutton from 100 feet, it's probably time to start dieting

Now, my dad is originally from the north of England. For those reading this in America, you should probably know that regional contrasts are just as marked in the UK as they are in the States. The south has classically been labeled the 'posh' side of England, whereas the north has always prided itself on its abundance of coal mines, steel factories and trade unions. The time had finally come for me to acquaint myself with my northern roots.

I did everything I could to immerse myself in Yorkshire culture. I went to watch Rotherham, my father's hometown with a team my dad has supported since the days footballs were still made out of leather, wolfing down vinegary chips and moaning with genuine northern exasperation at the nil-nil result. I discovered a whole slew of second cousins I had previously only ever seen in Christmas cards and photo albums, and was awed by their politeness as they lined up to thank my father for the sweets he had brought them (“Thank you, Ooncle Patch-rick!”). I chuckled conspiratorially with my Uncle Fred as we carried our overflowing plates away from the meat buffet of a local pub carvery, and then groaned quietly as I struggled to fit my stomach back into the rental car for the drive home. We also visited my German grandmother who lives in a home very close by and took a tour of the streets and fields my father played in as a boy.

It was this final part of my three days up north that really shook me. As we wandered around Rotherham, Papa Burns slowly brought me back in time. Starting with his elementary school, we traced a line downtown that culminated somewhere in the mid-19th century, outside a row of terraced houses that belonged to my great-great-great-grand-something. On this corner stood a sweet shop he ran and behind it, a cobbled square that I recognised from a black and white photograph taken nearly two centuries ago that hangs above my father's desk.

A few minutes down the road stood a large brick building plastered with signs for DISCOUNT CARPETS—CHEAP CHEAP CHEAP! Papa Burns and I pulled back a rusting fence and stumbled into a graveyard next door blanketed by overgrown vegetation and beer cans. We had to be quick, we weren't supposed to be there and the owner of the carpet store was apparently not a very nice chap. My father had just enough time to point out a crumbling chapel where his grandparents had married so many years before. The owner of the carpet store was looking to tear down the property, he told me, was trying to build a block of flats in its place, didn't care about the graves or the chapel. Papa Burns' efforts to preserve the area had been ineffectual, the neighbourhood was too rough to warrant a restoration grant and few people seemed that bothered to fight for it.

Suddenly a quiet voice called from around the corner, “You're not supposed to be in here.” From the other side of the building emerged three tiny children. We were caught in a surreal moment, my father and I engulfed in the sadness of this crumbling building, trying to escape before we were seen and now suddenly being interrogated by a group of six year-olds brandishing sticks. After we explained the plight of the chapel at trembling twig-point, the little gang disarmed and enthusiastically promised to start a war on the chapel's behalf. After seeing we got back to our car safely, they sped off to find bombs and missiles in the park across the street. Within this tableaux of young children and old buildings, of the overcast Rotherham sky my father spent his formative years beneath, of that same big man walking away from a town that was becoming less and less familiar, I felt I understood a little better the stolid, impassive qualities so often associated with people from the North.

On the drive home Papa Burns gestured at the long beams of light peaking round the corners of Rotherham's greying buildings. He mentioned how the light in Rotherham had a certain slow, dreamy quality he has never seen anywhere else in the world. It was good to know that not everything was changing.

When I finally got to Bristol and said goodbye to Papa Burns, who had been my traveling companion for two weeks, I was struck by an unbelievable sadness. Just like I do every time I miss my dad, I hurried inside and put on some Paul Simon records.

If you're in the mood for some good old-fashioned feeling-sorry-for-yourself then you can't really go wrong with a bit of Paul Simon. My older sister remarked to me how great it is to discover an overlooked but entirely incredible song by musicians who have been around for forty years, whose repertoire you thought you knew off by heart. She sent me Simon & Garfunkel's 'Bleaker Street' a week ago, and it's been on repeat ever since.


  1. Anonymous7.10.10

    Lovely post... Thank you for sharing.
    IMO the entire album Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. is very good.

  2. You need to visit me one time in North Yorkshire!

  3. Oh, marvy! Luke is back.

    Thanks for the lovely virtual tour around the North.