A timely reflection on Liverpool and our lives
Prof. Catherine Cole reviews Screen School colleague, Jeff Young’s, new book Ghost Town
At a time when COVID 19 has made people fearful, isolated or alone, Jeff Young’s new book, Ghost Town, offers not only a fascinating read but also a reflection on all those things that are important to us, our families, friends and communities. It’s a deeply felt and beautifully written journey through Jeff’s Liverpool childhood, the adult writer stalking Liverpool alone or with friends, searching for a past lost, regained, remembered so viscerally that the reader feels intimately connected to the child Jeff longing to leave the hospital where he’s had his tonsils removed or to the older man out walking with writer friend, Horatio Clare, in search of de Quincey in Everton.
Jeff writes that he is trying to summon the ‘psychic weather in some ruined dream-space, this ritual world where the cinema trip and bonfire night have as much mythic and emotional resonance as the hospital visit, the wedding that will inevitably end in tears, the funeral that ends up in the boozer.’ The book is underpinned by everything we understand about nostalgia and memory. It probes it, questioning how deeply we enter the fugal spaces of the past, when memory and the past come together in that existential paradox of who were are now- is it boy or man - and to which the only answer can be - you are both.
Ghost Town isn’t only about Jeff’s earlier life, it’s about Liverpool, a city so easily defined by past greatness, of brutality of slavery, of economic decline, then rebirth, its famous liver birds could be phoenixes. Liverpool is a city in which memory is ingrained in the social and cultural narratives of scousers like Jeff’s family who go back generations and also the newcomers who have made the city their own more recently. History is spread over the city, a caul of memory, from the bombed out church, the Albert Dock, Bootle and Everton, its demolished hospitals and workhouses.
Ghost Town provides an enlightening conversation about how the past and the present come together in us too. Those Facebook photos of our younger selves that have proliferated during the COVID lock-down are ghosts after all. And as we look into the mirror of our past selves, perhaps wishing that we’d appreciated what we had better while we lived it, we also promise to live better and in a more engaged way when we are eventually set free from the lockdown. This makes Ghost Town an ideal companion for reflections on the present and past. Its lyrical prose, its wonder at the riches of a city, its reconnection with a past self who can offer solace or wisdom to an older one - all these are invaluable lessons for our times. As Horatio Clare has written: ‘Ghost Town is thrillingly unlike anything I have read, a meditation on time, memory and place which immerses you like a film and moves you like a poem. And it is a dreamy lesson in the beauty of English prose.’ Jeff’s book adds another layer of understanding to Liverpool’s history, the city’s passing parade of the famous and infamous, insights into the political, social and personal capital of the city, its message deeply felt and plangent.
Ghost Town by Jeff Young is published by Little Toller and is available from major book distributors during the lockdown.