My parents are leaving the town I did most of my growing up in. Recently, I found myself thinking about the stream that runs through the woods behind my old school, behind retail outlets now boarded up.
As schoolboys, my friends and I were in the habit of building dams. Our method was simple and cheap if not effective. We threw branches and stones and shopping trolleys into the neck of water and watched eagerly to see how it changed. We were captains of industry diverting the flow in tiny unforeseen ways. The after-school light punctured the canopy and gilded the swirling currents as they flowed on through hidden parts of the town.
For some reason, we made great efforts to blockade these hidden brooks and tributaries. It makes me smile to think of our Lord of the Flies sub-society constructing its primitive infrastructure on the other side of the stream while people parked their cars and shopped for electronic goods.
I’ve had no reason to think of this until now. It’s a place you’ll never know unless you live in that town, and even if you do know of it, you’d never visit it on a busy weekend when you’re back to visit friends. Similarly, there are people I recognise in that town whose names I’ve never known. That makes a place feel like home. I suppose we go on a night out sometimes to bump into acquaintances as much as to be with close friends.
Those were the days. The irony is that these are the days, too. If I remember today at all, it’s likely that I’ll look back on it with warm feelings. I might say ‘I wouldn’t go through that again’ when thinking of an ordeal but when it comes to memories of being in a place, with certain people, at a certain time of year, I become nostalgic. It isn’t that I look back favourably on the past. It’s that I can better appreciate what I had. There is only one regret: to not know what we have when we have it.
Nameless places. Unlocalities. It’s the way we live now that many places are intended only to perform a function. By comparison, even Victorian sewers were more built with more love than many of our public buildings. Despite this, it’s usually possible to find something around you to appreciate. There’s a strange beauty in the unloved: the weeds and dry grass bordering the truck depot; the shabby post office and its decades-old fittings. Places like these have an unassuming charm. They don’t ask to be appreciated. They are what they are. Nobody charges you to see these things. Nobody misses them.