Other People’s Countries: A Journey into Memory
by Patrick McGuinness
Vintage paperback, 208 pages. Out now
A lyrical memoir reflecting on childhood and place reviewed by Will Burns
In the village where I grew up there was a bakery on the main road. It was a fair distance away from the high street, where all the other shops were to be found, such as they were. My brother and I walked past it on our way home from school and it always struck me as strange, somehow. It was basically a small house in a row of buildings much the same, but this one had been converted, although changed might be a better word, into a baker’s. It was a formative location for two reasons. The first is that my brother and I were caught stealing sweets from the shop once, and my Dad admonished us as much for stealing from a small, independently run shop as he did for committing the act of theft itself. It must have been my first exposure to that particular idea, because I can remember the conversation and my deepening shame as the construction of his argument hit home. The second is that my brother was hit by a lorry further up the road one day when we were walking home from school. I had crossed and saw the contact and then my brother disappear under the wheels. I bolted, already screaming, for home. And I remember clearly the turn that took me past the bakery. It meant something like I was close enough to home. Enough for what? Nothing would help now, surely? Not proximity to home, or to my Mum. As far as I knew, and it was knowledge in that moment, despite me being wrong, my brother had died. But that is what I remember. A feeling-shift when I ran past that one building.
Now, the baker’s shop is closed. The building is once again a normal, small, semi-detached house. The windows have been replaced with UPC double glazing, the front door new, the front garden worked up into something easy to manage but attractive enough for a home counties village. I have often wondered, since the place closed, if memories of the building’s past life, however temporary that phase might have been, seep out. Do the new owners ever smell fresh bread, say? Are there strange marks, or fittings in odd places on a kitchen wall? Or in the back garden? Things that defy explanation unless you know the full history of a house.
Patrick McGuinness roots this book of memory and moderness in a building much the same, I imagine, as this one I have described. His is a family home, however, so McGuinness is in full possession of at least four generation’s of the building’s facts. And indeed, a good deal of the houses in Bouillon, the small town in Walloon Belgium in which he spent some of his childhood (and still visits), operate as businesses of one kind of another, and his grandmother’s dress-making shop is run from their home. McGuinness’ memory is built from the rooms of a house, he tells us, each containing what might be called the ‘sets’ of scenes from his childhood, scenes from which he has built his identity.
From the outset, we are presented with a place where things are held in a stasis of opposition (dialectic seems entirely wrong, not least due to the book’s dalliance with the metaphysical, its populace of ghosts) from the young McGuinness’ instinctive understanding of the value of his suit’s linings, their doublure being clothes’ true thing of joy, no matter how well cut, to the two languages of Belgium, and linked to that, two different Trappist beers, one Flemish, one Walloon. His grandfather is described as a man intent on silence in a world of barroom boasters, his stories becoming shorter and shorter with every telling, thinning like the act of remembering itself. Almost everything that occurs, or crops up, is a strange kind of inversion of the reader’s prejudices. The ex-Newcastle United footballer and Belgian international Phillip Albert provides not only a barely believable connection between McGuinness’ parents’ backgrounds (a Belgian mother and a father from Tyneside), but also a rare example of a sportsman who retreats back to his hometown, becoming a fruit and veg salesman, rising early every day, a humble, good man. There is a nightclub scene, but no thousand pound bottles of vodka, no footballer’s wives clichés. Here is a way of life that is entirely at odds with our current information-glutted, hyper-connectivity, rendered in a voice that is plain and unadorned. The melancholy is in the accumulation of things, people, incident, colour. Not in nostalgic narration, the ‘mix of industrial and rural that you get in small factory towns’, that describes Bouillon, but also McGuinnness’ father’s Northumbrian home, mining towns in Wales, France. McGuinness’ triumph is describing so perfectly how this place’s specificity marks it out as both intensely his and yet emblematically universal.
There are poems as well and in fact the book opens with one (and with the word ‘before’), which serve to throw a certain light on the prose passages. The poems augment the strangeness of the book, its shifting between classification lending it an intimacy that feels entirely unfeigned. Sebald, of course, comes to mind, especially with the inclusion of the author’s black and white photographs, but McGuinness is his own man – more concrete, more emotional, more familial. This book marks the remembrance of a childhood, yes, but also of a forgotten Europe. The Bouillonnais acknowledge the existence of Paris, of Brussels, but they might as well be imagined. This is the world of the local, the small, the un-global. McGuinness’ English memories hover in and out of view, but feel like a universe away. Local phrases, local patois, local poets, war-heroes (and cowards) are all essentially located. In this hypnotic book, McGuinness has found a different kind of wiring to that which the city (ever growing, ever more bland, ever more commodifying) demands, it is the wiring of an old house, an old telephone on the wall the only means of communicating beyond the bend in the river.