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The Myth of a Hometown

by Bob's picks 5 months ago in camera

Leamington Spa, UK

There’s a tree in Leamington that claims to be the centre of England. It’s not, but we’re pretty close. The actual middle of England is about 20 miles up the road and I think we just thought we’d have a speculative pop at the title. Who checks these things anyway? My Grandad once told me that cutting down the Leamington tree would cause the whole of England to collapse, like matter being sucked into a black hole.

It’s an image that stuck with me long after I was old enough to know better. The thing is, it didn’t even seem that outlandish to a younger me. This whole area is steeped in English folklore, from the medieval feuds of Warwick Castle to the twisted tales of Shakespeare’s Stratford-Upon-Avon. Many of my early memories involve visits to a local Roman forts, bombed-out cathedrals, ancient theatres or old battlefields. The line between history and fiction often got confused, and everything was mixed up with my Lord of the Rings obsession anyway, meaning a vortex-inducing tree didn’t feel that out of place. My hometown was full of beasts and dragons.

Nowadays, the beasts and dragons are gone, but Leamington maintains a vague mystical quality. Instead of the tales of old England, the town now seems cloaked in the misty mythology of my own memory. Its roads, buildings and parks have watched me grow up from a snotty-nosed toddler into this snotty-nosed adult, chronicling each of the embarrassing stages that lie in between. Murky details of the past linger on every corner and down every street, even if no-one else can see them. For me, Leamington is still a place of lore and fable.

This is partly down to the look of the town. Built in the 1800s as a Victorian tourist destination, some of Leamington still feels like the backdrop of a Dickens’ novel. The town centre is full of bleach-white regency architecture, faux-classical pillars and ornate iron masonry. At the bottom of the high street, you’ll find carefully manicured floral gardens with neat water features and tasteful statues. A few hours strolling around these streets and you might start feeling like the lead in your very own fairy tale romance.

But the tales of my childhood are different. Most of them didn’t take place in the town centre and they certainly weren't romantic. It was in the side streets – the sorts of residental roads you find in every town – that the real myths and legends emerged.

***

There's this bench I used to walk past on my way to school. An old man would sit on it for hours at a time, day after day. He wore a beige jacket, sensible brogues and a chequered cap, with a curved walking stick propped up by his side for good measure. Most days he would give a grin and a jolly wave to any passer-by who caught his eye. On a special day, he would raise two hands in the air, wheel them in opposite directions and tap his feet to a song that only he could hear. He reminded me of a very old, very stationary Fred Astaire. I never knew what would cause the different gestures, but his little dances would make my day.

And then one morning, he was gone. I can’t place the exact date but it must have been sometime in the late 2000s. The bench is still there and all the memories that go with it, but I don’t know where he is now.

Heading down the road and up the hill takes you to the park where we used to meet after school. It's unusual because it's below street level, carved into the ground like a giant, rectangle crater and bordered by banks of messy undergrowth. I don't know why it's shaped the way it is but I'm sure my Grandad has a story.

It was here that I learnt how to be a teenager. My friends and I would spend endless hours blue-toothing awful music, making stupid videos and messing about on the kid’s slides and roundabouts. We must have been a menace to local mums but it felt harmless at the time. I think the worst thing we did was launch a mentos-coke rocket off a swing.

Photos from that time don’t do anyone any favours. My look involved dangerous quantities of hair gel, garish leather high-tops and an impressive double-chin. Others wore neon-studded belts, bejewelled scarfs and unironic cardigans. It was a terrible era for fashion that unfortunately coincided with our impressionable pubescent brains and the dawning era of camera phones. The images will haunt our timelines forever, but there is no denying the huge grins that accompany our grim clothes. For a brief moment in time, we were the rulers of our own little kingdom.

I will save you the horror of the photos*, but you might like one of our videos. We made endless reels of this stuff and they never got any funnier. At least this one had a good sound effect:

When we got older, and started migrating into the town’s pubs and clubs, Leamington seemed to double in size. It’s strange how I can recall the exact details of my first night out: buzzing off a heady mix of nerves and alcohol, wandering around sweaty strobe-lit rooms and noticing that my feet were sticking to the floor. The DJ started playing that Run DMC song and my friend grabbed my arm. I could smell the tang of cheap alcohol on his breath. We looked at each other with wild eyes; not too sure what to say or how to act, but pretty sure we were having the time of our lives. It didn't even matter that we were in the official 15th worst club in the country.

All the clubs are now closed and I’ll probably be too old by the time they re-open. Like the rest of the world, we have seen the pandemic gut our town centre and leave behind all these sad remnants of a bygone era. Places that used to be brimming with life – the joy, shouts, tears and laughter of suburban nightlife – are now just empty buildings with grubby windows. It feels like the whole town is stuck in a never-ending Sunday morning.

***

I don’t particularly yearn for the old days, but I sometimes get a strange wrenching feeling when I think about 'home'. All the seminal events of my childhood took place within a couple miles of where I sit now, meaning the locations of my most evocative memories are also the locations of my most recent memories. That’s the thing about a place you’ve grown up in and grown out of: it's hard to feel nostalgic when nothing seems to have changed.

I get the wrenching feeling most when I walk past my grandparent’s old house. The sight of the royal blue door still conjures up memories of long summer days playing out with my cousins. We used to hide behind the garden wall and act out puppet shows for passers-by, the plots of which were mostly improvised but always involved a character inexplicably turning into a crab.

When we got bored, we would head into the alleyways and stage jousting matches on wheely bins. If any adult spotted us, we’d speed away on our little plastic scooters, like the world’s worst motorbike gang, and back to Granny’s for apple juice and Blue-Ribbon biscuits.

Now it’s someone else’s house and it looks completely different. They have updated the tatty cream furniture, renovated the battered old kitchen and replaced my granny’s floral curtains with these sleek tapered blinds. It’s understandable: the house was a relic of 80s kitsch and needed to be dragged into the 21st century. A spot of refurbishment is probably the least that could be expected...

Yet I can’t help feeling a little annoyed. It feels like someone recorded over the VHS of my childhood

But then I look up and see the word ‘poo’ that my uncle painted into the corner of the wall when he was a kid. The placement is genius: obvious for anyone who is looking, but entirely invisible if you don’t know it is there. Sometimes I feel like we should knock on the door and warn the current inhabitants of the filth scribbled on their wall, but then I think of all the times I walked past and smiled. It is the last piece of our family that exists in that house and it is weirdly re-assuring to know that it’s still there.

***

Maybe that’s the thing about having a hometown. It’s a place that you know so much about that it becomes your own little world. Even the smallest details take on meanings that just wouldn’t make sense to anyone else. What might look like a copy-and-paste suburban town from the outside is full of colour, mystery and personality for those on the inside. The streets absorb your most formative memories and then, one day, you find your whole life reflected back at you in a graffitied ‘poo’.

Hence the mythology of a hometown. Historians tell us that ancient cultures used myths and legends to build-up their sense of identity and communicate what it was that made them unique. Stories about heroes, villains, beasts, dragons, triumphs and tragedies provided a useful shorthand for the things their society feared, valued and desired. It was a reflection of themselves – a way of authenticating their own existence. The same principle applies today: you can learn a lot about our world from the stories that we tell ourselves.

Consciously or unconsciously, I think we mythologise our hometowns for a similar reason. They are the ground zero of our identities – not just the places we come from, but potted explanations of who we are and what we are about. That's why we refer to our hometown years as our 'roots': they are what allow us to grow.

I hope we’ve all experienced some version of this hometown because it’s not so much about a town and it’s a lot more to do with ‘home’. Whether it’s a place, friendship group, family or mindset – whether we were born into it or not – home is somewhere where we just make sense. A place that understands and is understood. A place that anchors us and provides the gravitational pull that organises the rest of our lives.

Now I realise why my Grandad’s story made sense to me. Leamington does have a gravitational pull. My hometown is a myth.

...

*Okay, fine:

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