Our new series asks our reporters to consider whereabouts they call home – was it the place they grew up, the town they first moved to or perhaps where they are settled now? Here, our Gill James from Bury shares her thoughts and memories with us…
So, where is home? Is it the Black Country, where I was born, called black because the coal is so near the surface it blackens the soil? My autobiography ought to be called Sunset over the Gasworks because that’s what I saw from my first bedroom window in West Bromwich.
And what about Sheffield where I studied for my BA? Where the cleaning lady at “Randy” Ranmoor, (the first mixed hall of residence in the UK, state of the art in 1972 and pulled down a couple of years ago) called you “duck” and washed up your dirty coffee cups.
Rennes: capital of Brittany where if you get drunk on cider, I was told, you fall over backwards.
Stuttgart, a seven-hills city just like Sheffield and Rome. There was something special about that place. Several years on I have found out what. A school sheltering disabled young people survived the Nazi regime. It continued openly from the end of World War II and is still going strong now. My Schellberg Cycle is all about that. That’s what Stuttgart people are like.
My husband and I lived on the south coast from 1976 until 2008. It’s an urban myth that southerners are unfriendly. We found then warm, polite and very helpful, though sometimes a little shy. However, intimacy is another thing. I did feel a little uneasy for the first few years we lived in Hampshire. Where were all the new friends I was supposed to make? Then a colleague spelt it out when someone even newer than me joined our school. “Before we invite them out anywhere we need to see if that’s what they want.” Ah! The stranger is expected to make the first move. But soon I was a young mum and found my tribe amongst the other new mums.
We lived for a couple of years in the Netherlands. Our house was far enough from Amsterdam for us to be forced to mix with the locals. “Why don’t the kids at school understand the extra English we can speak?” complained our son when we returned to the UK. He couldn’t distinguish between Dutch and English. We also enjoyed the ex-pat life; our children mixed with the children of opera-singers, the children head of all the Hilton hotels in Europe and many children of other nationalities who had been sent to an English-speaking school to improve and maintain their English. Both were great experiences for our children, aged six to eleven at the time.
In 2007 I completed and gained my PhD from the University of Wales, Bangor, and this meant living for some parts of the four years in North Wales, where the mountains dip their toes into the sea. I lived in a small village. The journey to and from the campus took my breath away. Which was the most spectacular? The view of the sea as I came down off the mountain or that of the sunset over the mountains as I drove back home. That coastline anyway reminds me so much of my beloved Nerja on the Costa del Sol that finally got me writing. That’s a story for another day but it’s still another place I’d call home.
In 2007 I obtained a post at the University of Salford as a lecturer in Creative Writing. Ah, so Salford was the s ‘dirty old town’ in the song, not West Bromwich as I’d thought. We used to joke that one advantage of being born in West Bromwich is that everywhere else you go afterwards is an improvement. Salford and West Brom have similarities. They are both towns much older than a big town nearby. But Salford outshines West Bromwich: it has a cathedral, a Ship Canal, Shelagh Delaney, Lowry and now the BBC of course. Mind you, West Bromwich had a very fine Art School.
My post was at first 0.5, so I commuted on Mondays and Fridays and worked Tuesdays, Thursdays and Wednesday mornings. Wednesday afternoons were for exploring Manchester. It was thrilling. I got the same buzz about being in a vibrant city, one full of the most amazing culture, as I used to about trips into Birmingham when I was a teenager.
I became a full-time lecturer in 2008 and my husband moved from being a senior systems’ architect for IBM always working away from home with clients, to being a senior systems’ architect for IBM always working with clients out of a spare bedroom in Radcliffe. This beat me working in Salford, him working in Plymouth and us meeting in Southampton at weekends.
We love it up here. Lancashire and the Black Country have a lot in common: rich cultural and industrial heritages, a fascinating dialect (with the two surprisingly sharing some expressions) and a wealth of intriguing history. Birmingham and Manchester are both busy multi-cultural cities. Here as well we can almost touch some amazing countryside. And actually, door to door, from here we can get to London, where our children are based, more quickly than we could from Southampton.
Each of these places touches you and changes you a little. You then think you are coming home but you find that home has moved on. When we came back from the Netherlands we found that credit cards had become popular in the UK and we’d thought the Dutch were so clever with their “chip and pin”.
But perhaps the main point is this: we are who we are because of all of those other places we’ve lived in. A little like tortoises we actually carry our home with us. We hope we have something to offer and we have certainly learnt so much from all of the different people we have met in such a variety of settings.
If you would like to share a story or memory with us please email [email protected]