We're in Middlesbrough working on our seventh Story Hunt, the last of this year. Story Hunt is a storytelling show, a walking tour of things that are no longer there, of a town's ghosts. The people and places no longer to be seen. The buildings burned and bulldozed.
It's always a spooky and thrilling experience. The electric shock of pasts made palpable and present always galvanises. The archaeology of past towns buried under present is mystical and each town becomes a layered set of palimpsests, where disappeared buildings flicker into presence and long-dead people flag down cabs outside Wetherspoons.
Now that we're doing it in my own home town, though, it becomes powerful in strange new ways. The ghosts we're touring are my ghosts. I remember that place. I was robbed in that alley. I once got kicked out of that pub, and kicked in in that one. I had my first kiss out the back of that cinema. Further back, the Irish navvies chased across the fields by irate locals are my ancestors, and the irate locals chasing navvies across the fields are my ancestors too.
Midway through the project, we put up a booth in the town centre and swap stories for tea and biscuits. It's a way of taking the temperature of a town, and spotting common themes. We usually end up with a couple of wartime stories and often some youthful derring do at some forgotten nightdive. This, though, is the first time someone called David Bye has come in, announced himself as a distant relative, explained that he's taken the family tree back 400 years and told me I'm Norwegian. I don't suppose that will go in the show, but it does show how research for this show is inescapably also research into myself.
Last week, following a lead, I stumbled across a YouTube documentary made by someone I was at school with. He died four years ago. Every day something new brings me close to tears.
I never liked my school, but the news that it had been knocked down last year still came as a shock. Five horrible years, rubble. Good riddance. But also - another anchor, another of the dwindling list of things that moored me to this town, gone. And I drift a little further.
On booth day, we get lots of stories about where people's grandparents met. Seldom are more than one or two genuinely interesting. Here, the grandparents that met in that demolished dance hall are my grandparents: to me, that's inherently interesting. In other towns a school demolished, a dance hall disappeared, are of academic interest unless there's a good story attached and I can make poetry out of it. In that case it goes in the show. Otherwise, no. In this town, every little detail has that sting, that condensed heft, of poetry, before I've even attempted to alchemise it. I can't tell the piquant from the piffling.
My own perspective is always very present in Story Hunt, as in all my work. It's quite clear to the even moderately attentive audient that I'm on the side of protestors, of workers, of the oppressed and disenfranchised, and that I'm against capital and patriarchy and their attendant daemons. But that's usually an act of empathy or solidarity, a recognition of common defiance. Here, I don't feel empathetically. I just feel.
This makes the show a lot harder to write (which is also why I'm writing this instead). I don't usually have to worry about the distinction between what's of interest to me, and what's of interest full stop. I trust my instincts enough to know that if something is interesting to me, I should be able to make it interesting to an audience. Here, there's a whole lot of noise in with the signal.
The show might end up filled with a lot of stories about people I've loved and lost. It might end up as a lament for a town that no longer is, or has never been, or will never be. I might end up talking about a town only I know. It might be just like another Story Hunt, or it might be like that with added heft.
You can find out on Saturday.
Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will