Welcome back to the second part of my ramblings about Kate Atkinson’s Started Early, Took My Dog. To recap, it is a mystery that follows several characters’ lives and pasts; the murders of prostitutes spanning three decades; and the kidnapping of a little girl named Courtney. Today, however, we are going to look at this novel from a perspective that our northern audience can all relate to: the northerner outside of the north.
Jackson, one of the detectives looking into the family past of his client, spent much of his life and career outside of the north. It is not exactly clear why he left, but it is easy to assume it has something to do with both career prospects and the murder of his sister Niamh. Perhaps this question is answered in one of the other novels he appears in.
Anyway, Jackson is full of angst, regrets, and nostalgia. When he returned to his home, in North Yorkshire, he visits Jervaulx Abbey – a site of medieval ruins – and was “struck anew by the power that landscape and beauty had over him”. Is this not what it feels like to return home, after a term in Oxford, to the sites that filled your childhood years? Even if Oxford is fancier, and has grander buildings and architecture, is there not a certain power that your hometown holds over you?
“The slag heaps were levelled, the mine’s machinery long gone, only the pit-head wheel remained, cut in two and planted on a roundabout on the outskirts of town, more like an ornament than a memorial.”
I often feel this way, especially after moving from Manchester to the Midlands. The gaps between my visits were usually longer than eight weeks, and I felt my understanding of my hometown and the surrounding areas slipping away from my memory – then, in addition to this, there were countless changes each time I would return. The library was shut down and the building removed; the corner-shop owner died, and the place rebranded; the people had changed to the point where I struggled to recognise anybody in what was a tight-knit street when I was young.
With career prospects for graduates more fruitful in London and the south, and many of us coming from areas with few job prospects, this unfulfillable nostalgia is an inevitability for the future. It brings uncomfortable feelings to the surface, and makes it seem to us as though we are abandoning or being disloyal to our roots. However, with significantly fewer opportunities back home, it is down to us to create such chances in the future. Through charitable work, advocating for betting funding in schools, and encouraging business expansion in more deprived areas, the future could be in the north. It is not selling out or spitting on our history to become more like London – it would mean young people in our position would not have to live on the opposite side of the country to their families, friends, and hometowns.
“Kirkstall Abbey (…) was the first abbey he had come across whose stones were incongruously blackened with industrial soot from the days when all the golden fleeces were turned into bolts of cloth”
The industrial history of the north will always remain a strong part of many of our identities and histories – from the days of cotton mills all the way up to the Miners’ Strikes and the three-day week. It has seeped into the very foundations of the places it affected, and it is not something that will be forgotten. But it is hard to accept that one day, your hometown will become the ‘home away from home’, rather than that being the title of the city you live in. Heavy-hearted memories will be attached to those beginnings, but as Julia tells Jackson: “all roads lead home”.
Map source: ARCHI UK