Wednesday, 5 September 2018

Costafine Town

According to The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, anemoia is ‘nostalgia for a time you’ve never known’. Explaining the word’s mysteriousness, the DOS invite us to ‘Imagine stepping through the frame into a sepia-tinted haze, where you could sit on the side of the road and watch the locals passing by. Who lived and died before any of us arrived here, who sleep in some of the same houses we do, who look up at the same moon, who breathe the same air, feel the same blood in their veins — and live in a completely different world’.

My sense of anemoia has been kindled recently by discovering a song by a folk-rock duo from my hometown, South Shields. Splinter – aka Bill Elliott and Bobby Purvis – were signed to George Harrison’s Dark Horse label and found chart success in the 1970s. This post will try to explain what I find so endearing about their song ‘Costafine Town’. I know instinctively that it’s about more than sentimental lyrics, hand claps and key changes, but I can’t quite describe what it is that has me hitting ‘repeat’. My thoughts here partially function as notes for a poem – an extended exercise in kneading the pre-poem, referred to in an earlier post – and should not be regarded as complete or perfect.

‘Costafine Town’, a three-minute ear-worm in the style of the The Likely Lads, recounts the narrator’s conflicted feelings upon returning to his hometown. Described as being ‘too long away’ and ‘lonely’, the catabasis that the song implies is not simply resolved by ‘coming home’. Indeed, he boldly declares: ‘I wish I’d never made up my mind to stray.’ Forming the crux point between belonging and estrangement, the verb ‘stray’ is crucial to the song’s fraught melancholy. Are our primary identities shells that we necessarily outgrow? If we accumulate sufficient cultural capital, and if our education and status propel us away from those primary identities (for example, as we invariably begin mixing with more middle-class people at university – itself a status marker begetting other value systems and priorities), might we fairly feel inclined to discard them when they are no longer as valuable to the host culture? This is one of the meandering thought patterns I mull over when listening to ‘Costafine Town’, further complicated by the knowledge that the identities previously referred to – ‘working-class’, explicitly dropped in the song – are not identities I could justly pin on myself; that the Shields I knew as a kid, growing up in the 1990s and 2000s, was already post-industrial. Shipyards and mines were a vestige before I began secondary school and for as long as I can remember I’ve been happy to be funnelled through education (to the point where, PhD submission pending, I’m at the most concentrated end of that funnel) while working part-time in the knowledge economy so as to not have to use my diminutive frame to lay bricks or ‘go offshore’. I am, to use David Goodhart’s terminology, a product of the ‘anywhere’-dominated pattern of Higher Education policy post-1992, but I’m also a ‘somewhere’ who retains a huge fondness for this town, even if I do frequently roll my eyes at it. Straying, then, could be useful in combating one-dimensional feelings, such as the acute longing I detect in the song.

Wistful even from a 1974 vantage, why, listening to ‘Costafine Town’ forty-four years after its release, as a thirty-year-old man, do I sense a doubly-potent nostalgia? And is that feeling, perhaps borne of a knowledge that the band were singing about the place I’m from, albeit a few decades earlier, problematic when thinking and writing both creatively and critically about my own relationship to the region today?

Costorphine Town shown in western South Shields

First, it’s worth mentioning that the lyrics don’t actually pinpoint us to South Shields. While the title does locate an area of the town that can still be found (on Google Maps at least: see image above), it is in fact a corruption of Costorphine Town, referring to a strip of land around Holborn and Tyne Dock, gradually erased due to wartime bombardment and deindustrialisation. In reality, the lyrics of the song do little to evoke more than general Northern decay. Note the key signifiers: ‘working class’, ‘pub’, ‘hole’, ‘glass’. This could be Salford, Middlesbrough, Workington... So, Splinter, singing in 1974, were already conjuring a nostalgia for a prior time. This residual longing stems, I would argue, not from a specifically Tyneside-focused anomie, but by a subtle use of synecdoche. When we hear ‘open pub doors | Where the working class goes at night’ we think of our pub, or perhaps two or three regular haunts within close proximity. For me, this would be the Dolly Peel, Trimmer’s Arms and the Rose and Crown in west Shields. I have had a drink in one of those pubs in the last year, yet the song impels me to want to go out on Friday night, ‘whistling loud’ after my ‘4.30 shift has gone’, in ‘dirty old clothes’ drinking Scotch with my marras ’til kick-oot.

This is the simple effectiveness of the song: listeners in Benwell or Bootle will have different reference points to affix. The mood is already established, you just provide the setting. When contrasted to Ronnie Lambert’s well-known ‘Coming Home Newcastle’, a sugar-coated lament for what the poet Tim Pickard calls the ‘North-East’s greatest growth industry’,  a ‘drift south as there wasn’t any work of any kind in Newcastle [in 1973]’, a returning Geordie everyman squares the advantages of his economic migration (‘a few quick bob’) against the home comforts of ‘Brown Ale’ (‘ye can keep ye London wine’) and his mother ‘saying ‘hinny howay’’. I think ‘Costafine Town’ is a better song, but then I immediately wonder if that’s because I’m from Shields, not Newcastle further up the Tyne, and am projecting my own feelings onto the ambiance created by the music and the ‘timeless’ message conveyed by the lyrics: the wanderer returned. A peer on Twitter, himself originating in Sunderland, pointed out that, were the lyrics about Northampton, I might not harbour the same attachment. I think this is a very fair point, but still the song nags at me, begging to be written about. Or, better still, to be used as a leaping-off point. Where – or more pertinently, what – is Costafine Town now?

How might the tone of ‘Costafine Town’, a jaunty piece of pop-rock enmeshed in a time I never knew, be stripped down, sandblasted and reconfigured as meaningful comment on my present circumstances and the wider socio-economic and cultural situation of Britain in 2018? Right now, I’m not entirely certain, though I have a good inkling that it all hinges on that vagabond, ‘stray’. Terry Pratchett asks the following, which I think is relevant: ‘Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you’ve come 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.’

I intend for these thoughts to develop into a poem for the thesis. For a while now I’ve been using the working title Errata Slip for a Northern Town, but the literary quality of the conceit seems a little... worked. I think the narrative of ‘Costafine Town’, especially its inherent ambivalence (the contradiction in making up your mind to stray seems ripe for creative exploration), distils the melancholy I feel for South Shields in a nuanced way. Yes, it’s problematic to wish to reside in a sepia realm, but dipping in to it can be handy, especially if what you can bring back is a transformed perception of a present reality.

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