(As part of the effort to make sense of not making sense which, without meaning it to, became my resolution at some point during the most recent spate of Daft Days, I think I should post the five pieces I’ve written over the last few years for my Tumblr on returning to Broughty Ferry. Not only do not many folk view that site, but the scattered nature of the posts means I’ve not done very well at assembling my thoughts. As a concession to being uselessly and compulsively xenochronicitous, however, I’ve ‘decided’ to reproduce the last one first, as it was the first one I could find. This, then, is from – perhaps – December of last year.)
One of the stranger phenomena experienced in returning to a place one lived in several decades before, particularly if it is the place one grew up in, with the slow transition from unquestioning immersion to self-conscious separation which that implies, is a sort of double exposure.
That is, in the face of manifest change – demolition or reallocation of homes and shops, replacement of faces and fashions with new but naggingly familiar faces and fashions – there is a stubborn overlaying of the past onto the present, even a sense that the past is more ‘real’ than the present, or at least that experiencing it as more real is a major part of how one is experiencing the present.
One such interaction that plays out for me now is remembering my relationship with books and bookshops. Whether that is the memory of yellow Gollancz SF hardbacks in Broughty Ferry library, or the little second-hand bookshops up the Perth Road and Hawkhill where I bought my first copies of the poets, Keats and Auden among others, and where now there are, briefly, design studios, or, more permanently, new blocks of flats entirely, there is an intimate relationship for me between place and page.
Was it Menzies or Smith’s that sold a few shelves of books at the top of Whitehall St, opposite Draffens (itself the symbolic entrance to a further labyrinth of the interconnected interiors of Dundonian department stores)? That was where I took my book tokens from Primary 7 at Blackness, the prize that should have symbolised I was ‘Dux’, as my mother had been at the same school, but had been deLatinised (and defascistised) years earlier, and spent them on half a dozen horror fantasy books – stories of Conan by Robert E. Howard, with the violent, not yet cinematic, lubricious Frank Frazzetti covers.
(These were my entry level drugs leading to, within a few more years, the Cthulhu mythos of Howard’s epistolary pals, H.P. Lovecraft, and the even stranger – or is that more poetic? – Clark Ashton Smith.)
At the same time, like most of my male friends, I was moving on from the infinitely unfolding miniaturised systems of stamp collections and cards from bubble gum wrappers and packets of Tetley’s tea – that obsession with collectible series which prepubescent boys experience as they attempt to catalogue the world off into albums and imagined wunderkammeren – to the realm of rock music and, almost as important and in a way inextricably linked with that music, its album covers.
The Midgard Serpent slithering between Roger Dean’s fluted limestone flares on ‘Relayer’; the speed freak skull at the wheel of Barney Bubble’s Art Deco juggernaut on ‘Roadhawks’; the unsettling zebra hide diamond of Bridget Riley’s Op-Art on Faust’s sampler for Virgin, first seen the first time I was horribly hungover, the album having been trodden into the carpet after a party – Fantasy was to Prog as Horror was to Heavy Metal as SciFi was to Krautrock as Punk was to…was to… But by then, constantly anticipated as they had been throughout, there really were girls, and all such analogies fell before the three chord sneer of new hormones.
Home to all this was Groucho’s, centre of second-hand vinyl wherever its premises wandered, from up the Perth Road to under the Angus Hotel to opposite the Deep Sea – perpetually delivering borrowed authenticity as afghans gave way to duffel coats, then the crombies and RAF overcoats of the eighties.
The period I find myself focussing on most as I re-walk the small grid of Broughty Ferry streets between river and cafe and pub and charity shop (for still more books and second-hand CDs), is not quite locatable by year, as it is contained in one of the vaguer types of continuity. Continuities of a few (five to seven) years or so seem to mark the limits of one or another of our personae: units in which one set of unquestioned certainties holds sway, before the move or the degree or the divorce force us awake for a brief anxious blink at things, and then another set of the birth and the publication and the admin takes its place.
In this particular continuity, the centre of Brook Street is reigned over by two establishments, one internationally drab, the other parochially distinctive. The local shop is in fact two stores facing each other: a fashion outlet and a cafe – Fyvie’s.
In the clothing store, aged mannequins are bedecked in suitable clothing for the not quite elderly lady, and a seemingly permanent orange lens of orangey plastic is lowered to protect them from the possibility of sunlight. In the cafe, scuffed blonde Scandinavian wood dominates an interior given over to filter coffee and filled rolls and the bottomless vat of a lentil soup from which all trace of lenticularity has been boiled out into a sort of suspension of reddish orange dust, as though sandstone were drinkable.
In Woolworth’s, at the same soupy time, bargain bins sell ultra-cheap paperbacks even schoolboys can afford imported from elsewhere – somewhere that is not quite America, and may not even be London. These are all genre, pulp – spies in suits, lady long-legs, helmeted spacemen and squat-limbed robots, youthful cowboys and petticoated damsels. (Paper-thin characters are fixed to their gender roles in these books much more securely than the pages were glued to their narrow spines.)
Perched on a stool in the long window of Fyvie’s, just before or after encounters for lunch with my astonishing girlfriend, I would retreat from that moment of fraught intimacy back into the anterior self of such stories. ‘Anterior’ not just because they had the air of retreading old myths in new technological guises, as, say, Doctor Who was doing around the same time, or as films like ‘Logan’s Run’, ‘Rollerball’, or ‘Planet of the Apes’ did, but because I was still within, like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel, a further continuity – that of comics and newspaper serials.
Thanks to the great harmony of the D.C. Thomson universe, detective Dixon Hawke solved weekly crimes bloodied cheek by bludgeoned jowl, almost, with the cartoons of Billy and Bunny, whose human/animal interactions were recounted in Rupert Bear-like couplets.
‘Story’ for me was fable as much as fact, in the way that Glebe Street in The Broons appeared to be somewhere hereabouts, or Bash St or Cactusville seemed a thinly-veiled version of these here environs: Dundee was at once everywhere and nowhere, and everything it told us through the avatars of institutions, be they civic or self-elected, was at once true and more than truth, a sort of self-fulfilling myth it would take the shock of encountering an even larger though no less parochial illusion – Oxbridge – to stun me awake from.
In my favourite of the pulp novels, Another End, by Vincent King, the hero is transported round the universe by an intelligent ship, which simply melts him down and reconstitutes him whenever he’s actually needed – which, to be fair, isn’t often: just those bits which constitute the novel. As I remember it, and, it must be said, I don’t really remember it, the bits in between, the thousands of years without any central character in which the ship travels alone, the unwritten novel, sound much more interesting.
At some point, I realised this more or less described my relationship with Dundee.
Thus it is that I now find myself arriving again in my hometown, week after week, from an estranged but utterly familiar angle: Dundee to me remains the matrix where all the threads of narrative – the lie and the anecdote as much as the saga and the yarn – are unraveled by the terrifying immediacies of the symbol, its dislocating, dissociating and vertiginous perspective of significances that undercut any of the assurances that being ‘you’ for a few years appears to provide.
I always was outside exactly this space, gazing hopefully and adoringly in as the immaculate ones, the actual characters, proceeded through their dance of the details with an assurance it is always best not to question, for fear of the mouthful of loosened teeth, the nose on a plate, and the heart in pieces.
In this myth I get to be cast as the loser, the idiot, the meltable man – Poor Bill – the wrong film unspooling across his reconstituted eyeballs, the lost moment, the departed loved one, the demolished building… It feels, now as then, like an enormous privilege.