Beyond the inner limits

From the North Wales coast to standing in line in Blockbuster with David Beckham, psychotherapist Nick Blackburn reflects on the people and places that shaped him

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Do our surroundings shape the way we think? I guess that makes sense. The way your mind or the texture of your thinking bends to accommodate a familiar knot of trees, water, or concrete. In the North, what works upon you walking back from work thinking about mill buildings or birch trees; what happens when you think about moors?

The car we drove is in pieces somewhere in a scrapyard and my father has been dead for four years

As a psychotherapist (and more recently a writer), I’m used to thinking about how other people think, and about how that thinking gets moulded – the impact a family or a relationship or a particular culture has on a person; the ways in which our forms of thought scar over around a trauma or something that’s never quite been put into words.

A couple of years ago a survey for a national newspaper found that of the 15 neighbourhoods with the highest instances of depression in the UK, 13 were in the North. Some of this is about poverty, I imagine, and about possibility. But some of it has to be environmental too, and when things start feeling stuck it’s sometimes freeing to think about the stuckness as an outer problem – physical and spatial – rather than simply something in your head.

It’s always irritating, especially because there’s some truth in it, when a patient comes with a complicated problem and a friend or a doctor or a loved one has said to them: “Try going for a walk.” You may know the positive feelings it can bring from that holiday you went on, how, under the blue sky you felt the weight lifting off your chest and the tempo of your conversations change.

I remember when I was a child my parents sometimes elected to skip the dead line of traffic lurching its way from Llandudno to the Menai Bridge and we’d go for the inland road from Chester to the North Wales coast. I’m doing it now, lying in bed, trying to remember the pub where we’d stop for scampi and how exciting that seemed when I was small. There is the rain past Bala, past the drowned village at Capel Celyn, the Magnox nuclear plant, the long wall below the railway line at Porthmadog hiding the water and then over towards Criccieth, round a bend and you can see the sea.

We made a game of it – a race to voice that feeling. “I see the sea!” we’d say. The sea was just beginning to define itself against the sky normally, before the view widened to accommodate boats, cliffs, the castle. I’ve probably not seen what I’m seeing now in my mind’s eye (I see the sea!) for 15 years and some of it’s probably gone now. The car we drove is in pieces in a scrapyard somewhere and on the third of next month my father has been dead for four years.

I wrote a book about him dying, about how strange it was and how the house was different: things I hadn’t been interested in for years came back into my mind (like Joy Division or the nuclear accident at Chernobyl). Books change the shape of our thinking too sometimes. I know writing one did.

I’ve been wondering whether there is a harmless form of madness up here in the North. The thing that helps us talk to strangers on station platforms. Some of this is Northern mythology I know – people will tell you stories about how the legacy of factory working makes people chattier, or that it’s something in the water, something that falls down on us in all this rain. “I am but mad north-north-west,” says Hamlet, who might have appreciated Blackpool. “When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw.”

Maybe what I’m really saying is we tell ourselves stories about the world to make life bearable, even as the rest of the world tells its stories about us. When we ask “Am I making sense?” it is something we make, isn’t it, like on a loom in a factory: out of different bits of memories, and places and things.

My parents grew up to the west of Manchester, near Sale, and drifted south as they got older, from Didsbury to Wilmslow and Prestbury by way of Alderley Edge. My father died in Macclesfield hospital. Last night my mother was talking about how she took for granted in her youth that she lived in the centre of things. How seeing early gigs by the Hollies or having people come and play at social clubs who went on to be huge international stars was just how things were. Like the long hot summers she remembers from the 1960s.

I sometimes wish I’d never left Manchester, or that it had felt like a choice. I come back every few weekends to see my mother and Sophie the cat who doesn’t like me unless it’s freezing and she’s locked outside. It was easier to do the kind of psychotherapy training I wanted to do in London, or that’s the story I told myself. I’d been to university in the south as well and when I came back in the holidays my parents seemed to think I was different, which upset me. Going away, going to university really, was the adults’ idea, though not something any of them had actually done themselves.

There is an idea in Buddhist mythology, a man told me the other week, that if you don’t resolve your appetites in this life you get sent to the realm of hungry ghosts – long thin necks elongated, he told me, huge mouths and distended bellies. I don’t want to tell you this is what southerners are like: after all, ghosts of this kind have been sighted as far north as Wigan, by the Linnets Stadium in Runcorn and as far west as Chester Zoo.

Buddhism in some of the forms it takes in actual societies seems in fact to be a lot less happy and clappy than when I was taught it in RS GCSE at Manchester Grammar School: there can be an anxiety in some Buddhist cultures that celebrating successes sets you up for disasters to follow. Maybe there was some of that with Manchester too.

I’m thinking about standing behind David Beckham in Wilmslow Blockbuster Video some time in the 1990s, standing above his son holding both his hands, stretched upwards towards his dad. It seems so unlikely now: Beckham in the newsagents in the morning with his United tie on as we were on our way to school in the long, beautiful summer of United being the best team in the world. I want to say the large abandoned Blockbuster in Fallowfield is still there in that shopping centre where the bus station used to be. Maybe they’ve knocked it down by now.

A person dies and goes into the afterworld, it’s said, comes to in a realm full of pleasures. There is a room this person finds themselves in, full of every food you could ever want, and yet – look here! – a problem. A long wooden splint has been tied to each arm, preventing the arm from bending.

I guess that’s fine, the person thinks, and continues experiencing the paradise and its lovely foods, and yet they cannot feed themselves. The only way forward, naturally, is collaboration: learn to feed one another, in pairs or groups.

I think perhaps we’ve all got a bit more ghostly during the lockdowns and the weird recession of the social world that’s ebbed and flowed with it. I’ve seen delayed effects of isolation more often than I’ve met the lucky person who discovered that hell had been other people all along and paradise had opened up for them once they didn’t have to go into an office anymore. Grief is a bit ghost-making too, oddly – we think the ghosts are the people who’ve left but really it’s more about what’s left behind.

Writing a book about my dead father, who suffered from depression and never really spoke much but was always in the house until he wasn’t anymore, and writing and grieving in a time of plague, when in that first spring you crossed the street to avoid people, I found it was landscape I reconnected with. Like listening to a rambling story, perhaps like reading one in a magazine, the thing about a walk (Have you thought about going for a walk?) is you can’t predict what will stay with you afterwards.

The Reactor: A Book About Grief and Repair by Nick Blackburn is out on 20 January, published by Faber

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