Homecoming – two years on

This blog previously appeared on my Newcastle blog, Prodigal Geordie

“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colours. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.” – Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky.

30-odd years ago, I left my home in a crumbling council estate in Gateshead – so crumbling, in fact, that most of it was demolished only months later, though I can take neither blame nor credit for that – with the intention of never coming back. It’s a plan that, a few brief diversions aside, I’ve mostly stuck to for the last three decades. My connection with my hometown have mostly been limited to visits of ever-diminishing length and frequency, as I carved out a life far from the shadow of where I grew up. And yet, 2 years ago, in a move that surprised everyone – not least me – I gave up my seafront flat in Brighton and came back North. And it was partly because of a play.

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Having lived in Scotland and Sheffield, moving between cities for studies or work or love, the year I hit 30 I eventually followed what had been the path of so many of my Northern contemporaries. A bunch of (mostly) arts and humanities students who graduated in the middle of a recession, many had followed the siren song south, and if I arrived in London a good ten years later, I saw that to my advantage. Plenty of established contacts, a little more experience, the good sense to hold out for a flatshare somewhere that wasn’t a slum.

For a working class girl from the North, I did OK. Decent(ish) job followed decent(ish) job. If I never quite rose to the giddy heights I hoped for – my dream, of course, was to be a writer – that was OK. I had a number of careers that hovered in the periphery of the arts, and a freelance hustle on the side, and life in London taught me that was about the best someone like me could hope for. The plum jobs, the important roles, were assigned at birth like fairy godmother wishes: those who grew up into the accents and the education and the contacts that opened any door, cushioned by parents from the financial realities that shaped the lives of the people I had grown up with.

I managed to leverage a lifelong love of the theatre into an occasional reviewing gig (unpaid, at first, of course, because the assumption was that reviewers – that everyone – could afford to work for free), and it became a lesson in unbelonging. With a few, cherished exceptions, the plays I saw were actors of varying degrees of poshness (hidden or overt), performing for an audience of their peers. Working class people, if they appeared at all, were there only for comic relief, or as plot fodder, dramatic disruptors to throw the Nice Lives of the protagonists off track.

I would meet my reviewing colleagues at press nights, where we were united in our quest to sink as much free wine as possible, but generally little else. They were mostly men, and mostly middle class (and nearly always white – it took me a shamefully long time to realise that if I felt excluded, it would be 100 times worse to be one of the few people of colour in a venue). The few exceptions I found I clung to – friendships forged with after-hours alcohol-fuelled rants about some piece of noxious sexism my male peers seemed to have missed. And, it’s true, in my time I saw the landscape start to change – in part driven by the women I now was proud to call my friends. But even this core of bright young women were mostly from the same backgrounds as the men. They might be more cognisant of their privilege, but usually it was still there.

And then a play brought me home. A random assignment: reviewing the Sting-penned, Wallsend-set ship-building musical The Last Ship at Northern Stage. Suddenly, I found myself not just watching actors who sounded like me on stage, but amongst an audience of people who seemed not that far from me, either. It was nothing short of a revelation. Wait – this was really possible? Is this was theatre could be?

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At the same time, other stars aligned – some driving me towards Newcastle, some driving me away from Brighton, where I had lived for the last five years, having moved there after my Terrible Summer, when I was finally priced out of even the cheapest parts of London. I was disillusioned paying a punishing rent on a flat where half the windows were held in with duct tape – a rent my freelance income often struggled to cover – and as the debt I had lugged around since university continued to grow, I started to worry for the future as a single, self-employed woman with a spluttering freelance income and no pension. A few family health scares were stark reminders of how far away I was, at the same time that attending a cousin’s 50th birthday brought back to me that my family can be strong-willed, contrary and occasionally combative – but I genuinely liked them. I liked spending time with them. Being away so long, I had somehow allowed myself to forget that.

But moving back brought its own issues. Friends who remained Up North seemed encouraging, but secretly I wondered: did they think I was moving back because I just couldn’t cut it down south? In my youth, I’d imagined any return as that of conquering hero – with an award under each arm, a smokin’ hot husband and such enormous profits from selling our London home that we could afford to buy a mansion. The reality was… um, somewhat different. And though my career as an arts writer was never stellar, it was steady – was I torpedoing that by moving away from London? Would the only theatre I see would be glossy regional touring shows featuring folk off the telly, when Real Art was happening elsewhere?

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Instead, I found an arts scene of richness and variety that stunned me. From the big, expensive co-productions at Northern Stage and new writing showcases at Live to the shoestring budget shows at Alphabetti, yours for a fiver if that’s all you can afford, here was theatre as I had always wanted it. From Scrooge in a castle to Shakespeare in a field; where you can see an evisceration of the arms industry in a local community centre, or go to a puppet horror show or a baby friendly performance in a theatre that has a dog.

It wasn’t a perfect scene, by any means (cruelly underfunded, too many positions of power held by white men, and still far easier for anyone with money and privilege to succeed) but it was far more vibrant and compelling than it often gets credit for by anyone beyond the M25. I found the people friendly and welcoming (though I have enough self-awareness to realise that I was probably more approachable myself, having shed the defensiveness I so often wrapped myself in in London crowds) and quickly made contacts and friends. I had worried that the theatre scene here wouldn’t be anything like London, and it turns out I was right. It just surprised me that that was a good thing.

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And if that shocked me, it was nothing to what was happening in the rest of my life. Easy transport links – compared to the temperamental and unreliable Brighton-London line – meant that I saw more London theatre (and more London friends) than I had in most of my time in Brighton, since my new, much lower rent meant I could actually afford it. With Scotland a short jaunt up the East Coast line, I was able to spend time in Glasgow and Edinburgh, nurturing and rekindling friendships that I had far too long neglected. Being back not only allowed me to see more of the friends who had stayed in Newcastle, but I also reconnected with people I had lost touch with: my bestie from college and an old work friend for whom I had been bridesmaid. Friendships that had fallen by the wayside when I moved away, in the times before Facebook and email allowed such connections to be easily maintained, but which I joyfully rediscovered.

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I’d hardly seen my family since my mum died, but now they were a near-constant in my life – and I surprised my formerly independent self by loving it. I spent most Sunday nights at my cousin’s, eating too much and drinking beer and just chatting and laughing about our weeks. I was invited to birthdays and weddings and Christmases and ‘just pop round for coffee’s: all those big and small events that had somehow passed me by, that I had so rarely made time to travel for. Since my beloved Glamorous Aunt lived round the corner from Alphabetti, I took to stopping in to see her every time I went to see a play, just to have some coffee and a chat, and she once more became a warm, encouraging presence in my life. I felt like the heroine of one of those Hallmark Christmas movies, who had moved to the Big City then comes home and rediscovers the joys of the town she came from, before handily falling in love with the Hot Hometown Guy. Only I didn’t fall in love with anyone – I suddenly felt no need to – except maybe my town, and my life.

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Of course, not everything was ideal. While I was off doing my medley of jobs and having car crash flings and moving from one rented place to another, my friends here were buying houses and getting married and building lives, and sometimes I felt like a failure beside them, some immature teen still working out her life while everyone else has got it together. How did everyone grow up so much while I was away? Not all those I’d hoped were thrilled to see me – someone I’d thought of as a very close friend vanished off my radar as soon as I returned, with the sum total of one text and a birthday card in the two years I have been back, a ghosting all the more painful because she was one of those who most loudly encouraged the move. I also had to come to recognise that you have a very different relationship with people in their everyday world – when they have jobs and families and friends and responsibilities to negotiate – than you do when you pop back for a weekend, when everyone is far more willing to drop everything to accommodate your plans.

But I also felt better than I had in years. A loneliness I never truly acknowledged fell away from me, replaced by the contentment that comes from a bone-deep belonging that I hadn’t realised I was missing until I felt it. I was invigorated by a theatre scene I connected with more than any I had experienced, one I found myself caring about in ways I never could quite manage in London or Brighton, and that in turn ignited my writing, taking my career in exciting and unanticipated directions. An initial wobble aside – I cried my eyes out for a day when I moved into my flat, in this solidly suburban neighbourhood, convinced I had made a terrible mistake – I felt a certainty, a rightness so fierce it was actually unsettling for someone who is usually plagued by indecision and self-doubt.

I had wondered if COVID might shake this conviction. It of course stalled my theatre writing at the most frustrating time – just as I felt I was starting to get a handle on the local scene, it shut down. I was left both selfishly disappointed, while also fearful that an already underfunded arts landscape would struggle to rebound from the crisis. I was happy I had more space at home than I’d had in Brighton, but moving to somewhere whose main recommendation is great transport links is a lot less handy when you can’t get a Metro or a train and there’s nowhere for you to go anyway.

But instead, it has only solidified my conviction. I have friends in Brighton – dear, beloved friends – but I realise I had no real community there. Here, I feel I do, among those I know – and even those I don’t. I have a support network of family and friends who have helped me through lockdown in a hundred different ways, large and small, from dropping off groceries to having garden chats. Living in a much cheaper city, the financial pressure has of course been less – I’m pretty sure if I was still paying Brighton rents on my much-diminished salary, I’d be screwed. Perhaps most important on a personal level, having lost my Beloved Glam Aunt at the start of the crisis, I will be eternally grateful that I got to spend so much time with her over the past two years, that we got to have all those coffees and chats.

I also feel like I can contribute more. Because I feel more connected to the city, its people and its theatre scene, in ways I have never felt anywhere else. I’ve been more committed to doing what I can to help them weather the crisis – whether that’s through writing about Northern / working class theatre and creatives (here on this blog or, for instance, in this celebration of the city’s theatres in Exeunt), contributing what cash I can spare to fundraisers, or using whatever small profile I have to amplify other voices. It might not be much, but it’s more than I could do in Brighton.

I am usually a person wracked by doubt and self-recrimination; by ‘what ifs’ and ‘should haves’ and longings for the road not travelled. It’s a weird, weird feeling to embrace the certainty of knowing you made the right call, but two years into my Northern journey, I find that’s where I am. You could say it feels like home.

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