Caught by the River

The Transit Camp Ophelia

25th November 2020

Mightiest congratulations to Jeff Young and our friends at Little Toller on the news of Ghost Town’s much-deserved inclusion on this year’s Costa Biography Award shortlist. The book’s a definite highlight of the year for us, and if you read the extract below, you’ll be sure to see why.

The girl had a Second World War silk parachute and she would wear it like a wedding dress. She made the world change colour, pale sheets of fabric erasing the known world as she danced like a young Isadora Duncan.

We’d gone to live on a new housing estate – or rather, a still-being-built housing estate – that butted up against a hillbilly farmyard. There were two burnt-out holiday coaches dumped in the middle of overgrown potato fields, and there was a sandy-bedded brook full of frogs and newts. There were outhouses where I imagined great train robbers holed up while they shared out the loot. The farm fields were disappearing, buried beneath semi-detached houses and roads named Hill Crest, Dell Field and Briar. At the edge of the estate there were the ruins of a Second World War transit camp. People said Polish people lived there, the families of men from places called Warsaw and Gdańsk, men who had fought on ‘our side’ during the war. Years later I found out that they had been liberated from forced labour and concentration camps, were sent to England in 1946 and came to live in the north of Liverpool in camps built for people made homeless by the Blitz. There are photographs of children at a fete in the late 1940s wearing traditional Polish costumes. Some of these children must have been the parents of the Polish kids I went to school with: farm labourers, Dunlop factory hands. Sometimes at the shops you’d hear women talking in a strange and beautiful language – women who’d been in Nazi labour camps, forced to work in the fields of Germany and Austria; people who had fled from the Russians they feared as much as the Germans. It never occurred to me that these people were here because of fear. They lived in houses just like us and the transit camp that had sheltered them was now a ruined playground. We used to sneak in through the ripped perimeter fence and explore the overgrown buildings. It was a frightening, mysterious place, a place where we were not supposed to go. Standing stones of ruptured concrete, rusted fence posts, steel hawsers, ruined air-raid shelters; a strange derelict garden designed by Derek Jarman.

You could climb down into the cellars and sewers and crawl into claustrophobic chambers full of insects. You could stage running battles with kids from rival estates using rocks as bombs and oil-drum lids as shields, battling for control of the mud hill like feral boys in an overspill Lord of the Flies. Our new house had a garden, a bathroom and an indoor toilet, and the half-built houses beyond our road were places to build dens and hide away from the cocky watchman. Most of all there was the girl. We’d only lived in the new house for a few days and Val had already made friends with her. She took me to the girl’s house one day and we played in a shed that smelled of creosote and Swarfega. Her dad was a knife grinder and his tools were in there, too; strange machines out of fairy tales, sharp blades like murder weapons. This new world was so different to the streets I was used to, but in this world, there was a pretty girl who danced slowly wearing yards and yards of silk. Once, in her bedroom she took it out of the wardrobe, spread it across the bed. She disappeared into it, as if into silkmist, as if into memory. I don’t know where she is in the world. I wonder if she remembers how it made me feel, to see a pretty girl disappearing into a cloud of silk.

One day she calls my name on the road and I follow her. She’s carrying the parachute and an old lady’s handbag. We walk in silence to the transit camp. In her handbag she carries the pendulum weight from a grandfather clock. Sometimes she doesn’t even speak to me, just drifts through the building site, through the mud, across the wooden plank bridges, over the ditches, through the rip in the perimeter fence, into the field, down into the vandalised drains of the transit camp, down amidst the insects. I watch her, she turns and glances, as if I am a passing thought that has just occurred to her. That glance makes me exist, makes me into something or someone that matters. I follow her.


Read a previous extract taken from the book here, and a review by Clinic’s Ade Blackburn here. ‘Ghost Town’ is out now and hardback copies are available here, priced £16.00.

Category winners of the Costa Book Awards will be announced on Monday 4th January 2021, with the overall Book of the Year revealed on Tuesday 26th January 2021.