Turning back home

Antonia Charlesworth visits writer Carol Birch at her home in Lancaster where she hears a snatch of her playing the concertina before they talk about music, the strangeness of memory and Manchester

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Were it not for the modern cars lining the narrow street of terraced houses sandwiched between Lancaster Canal and its historic city centre, the rich, folky instrumental music heard from the street might persuade you that you had stepped back into the late 19th century, when these three-storey cellared homes were built.

The sound is coming from the home of novelist Carol Birch, who abruptly shuts it off following my knock on her door. Music is a recurring theme in Birch’s stories, the most recent of which, Shadow Girls – her thirteenth novel, luckily she’s not superstitious – she has just unboxed fresh from the printers. Her publisher has done a good job of it, she says, but now comes the uncomfortable build-up to its release – publicising it.

“I never liked this business side of it. Writing books is one thing but doing all the publicity. Sorry – I’m not trying to get at you but yes, it’s a funny old time.”

The music in Shadow Girls evokes her schooldays at Manchester Central Grammar for Girls – on Whitworth Street, now part of Manchester College – in the mid-1960s. Tunes like the fanciful folk ditty Marianina, operatic caper I Have Twelve Oxen, and Schubert’s paean to river fish, The Trout.

“Funny old things that you don’t hear anymore,” is how Birch describes them before giving a too brief rendition of the start of Marianina, more assured now as she settles into an easy chatter. “You get them in these funny old community songbooks, like you find in old antique shops or junk shops.”

“I never liked this business side of it – writing books is one thing but doing all the publicity.”

These are the kind of shops you can imagine Birch delights in rummaging through, based on the eclectic, bohemian interior of her modest, welcoming home. Furniture is one of a kind, artwork is original, books and CDs line her walls. She’s short one sofa at the moment, she says, having donated it to her son who she’s just helped move house on the other side of Lancaster. Her other son – both are in their thirties – lives in Nottingham. She lives here with her husband Martin, and Tray – her welcoming and bouncy Bedlington terrier. Birch’s firm hand with him, as she orders him down from sniffing my hair while we sit on the remaining sofa, is incongruous to her gentle speaking voice. She is neutral in accent – most likely on account of having lived in the north, south and middle of the country over the years, and in Ireland for eight of them – except for when it’s distinctively Mancunian, and she summons bassier tones. On the coffee table next to us is the source of the music.

“I was playing the concertina. I’m not very good. I started late,” she says apologetically. “My dad was musical. He was a trombonist in a jazz band in the 1940s and 1950s in Manchester.”

This music found its way into her 2003 book Turn Again Home, about three generations of a Manchester family in the Gorton area and heavily inspired by her own family history. Birch’s childhood home was opposite Belle Vue – the famous entertainment complex housing everything 20th century pleasure seekers could desire, including a zoo, a fun fair and a circus – “with all the clowns running about scaring the shit out of you”. On Saturday nights she remembers watching fireworks over the boating lake from the front bedroom window with her sister. But despite having an unusually good memory, Turn Again Home was probably the closest thing to memoir she will write.

“I got into a bit of trouble with my sister over some of it, because people remember things differently,” she admits. “Memory is such a strange thing. We could both remember the same incident or detail completely differently. We are both absolutely convinced that we are the ones with the right memory – and we can’t both be! So when you write memoir, it’s not necessarily true.”

Perhaps it being so present in her childhood is the reason music earworms its way into Birch’s prose. It’s not a conscious thing, she says, and she doesn’t listen to music while writing.

“But I always quite like it when I come across it in other people’s books. Even if I don’t know the music, sometimes I look it up,” she says. “It’s powerful. A tune can really evoke something. You can hear something after years and it will bring back an entire time in your life.”

So can old buildings. While wandering about Manchester with her husband one day, Birch suggested they go and see her old school. Peering through the back gates in Chorlton Street, they were spotted by a caretaker and invited in.

“He was so nice. He said, I like it when people come back and share their stories, and he let us go all over the place.

“It was such a funny experience because some of it was completely unrecognisable, you couldn’t get your bearings, and then a familiar little corner would do something to your brain.”

It’s an experience she shares with the protagonist of Shadow Girls, Sally, who returns to her former school to live as an adult after it’s been turned into desirable city-centre apartments. In her new favourite platform shoes, Sally enjoys her freedom in 1970s Manchester, richly evoked by Birch. But while a city so changed haunts the reader, in her old school Sally is haunted by her past – and perhaps something more sinister. It’s an atmospheric and unsettling novel that deftly combines psychological suspense and ghost story.

“The caretaker that day told us sometimes there’s a light on where they shouldn’t be,” says Birch with a laugh. “The school was quite a creepy old building, even then, and people did have seances and stories about things – hearing funny noises, certain parts of the school that felt creepy, and so on. But you know what it’s like being a bunch of girls at that age – you do that sort of thing.”

This interest in the paranormal followed by the dismissal of it by logic describes Birch’s approach to both Shadow Girls and her previous book, 2021’s Cold Boy’s Wood*. Although her books toy with the idea of the ghostly, they never fully commit to it.

“I know that people have experiences which you can describe how you want – paranormal, supernatural, whatever word you want to use. What I don’t know is the explanation for those experiences and I don’t want to come down on any side in any of my books.

“The other thing I think, which I went into a bit more in Cold Boy’s Wood, is that even if it is in your mind – a hallucination or voices or whatever – it’s still real for them.

“I am wary of saying that I’ve had funny experiences now and again because I don’t want people to think I’m a complete bleeding idiot. And I think a lot of people will not say things because they’re frightened of being laughed at or ridiculed – but I have had the odd experience here and there. Nothing dramatic we’re going to make a horror film out of, but things I can’t explain.”

Despite her aversion to press and public speaking, Birch is an open and engaged interviewee.

Carol Birch. Photos: Claire Griffiths

“I know there’s some people who feel so badly about it that they say no, but I’m all right with it really. Some times are more difficult than others. I always think it’s funny the way they think that writers will be good at speaking – not always. After all these years you should get used to it really, but because you don’t have a book coming out all the time, you’re living your own quiet life most of the time.”

But visiting her in her home is like popping in for a brew and a chat with a distant but kindly aunt you’ve not seen for a while. A cool one. Birch is unfussy, at ease with herself. She’s a youthful 71, with an infectious girlish smile and apple cheeks. Perhaps some of her aversion to the publicity round comes from being shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2011, for her sweeping historical novel Jamrach’s Menagerie.

Set between the East End and the Dutch East Indies via a whaling ship, it tells the story of a 19th century street urchin, Jaffy Brown, who comes to work with Charles Jamrach, the famed importer of exotic animals who then recruits him to capture a fabled dragon. It features a child narrator coming of age, another recurrent theme in Birch’s work.

“I quite like writing about children. It’s very intense the way children react to things.” And of course, she adds, she has strong memories of childhood.

“When I got onto the Booker it was the year they were saying it was dumbed down,” she laughs, recalling the 2011 shortlist that followed Labour politician, former journalist and Booker judge Chris Mullin’s call for stories that “zip along”.

“So there was me and a bunch of really nice people going around doing this circus we had to do, and in the papers it was saying it’s the dumbed-down list because some stupid politician had said we’re fed up of overly intellectual books. Then you have to get up and face an audience of people who are thinking this is the dumb lot. It’s a bit difficult.

“You don’t ask to be put on this list. Somebody rings you up and says you’re on this list. You’re not going to say, well, take me off it, are you? But you’ve not put yourself there.”

Birch turns confidential in tone. “I have a story to tell us which perhaps I shouldn’t, but I got quite hurt by this.”

In a TV discussion about the Booker, Dan Stevens from Downton Abbey slated her book. “He said: ‘I don’t care what wins as long as this doesn’t.’ He was so horrible and I felt really upset about that because it was the night before I was supposed to make this public appearance in front of a big crowd. I felt horrible. The other nominees were really lovely, saying, what do they know? But it was nasty at the time.”

Months later both were both due to appear at another event and she remembers Stevens tweeting that he hoped she wouldn’t throw a glass of wine over him.“I don’t do that sort of thing but I thought, you’re asking for it,” she says.

It made her reassess book reviews that she was writing frequently for publications including the Guardian, Independent, TLS and New Statesman.

“You know that for whoever has written that book it’s been blood, sweat and tears. No book is easy to write. It means a lot to the person but you don’t want to be dishonest and say this is a good book if it isn’t. A couple I remember, and I won’t mention names, I think they probably ended up wanting to shoot me in the head. I didn’t like them and felt that they could take it somehow on the chin. But I even regret that now.”

Then again, she says, “it becomes very bland if everyone’s just saying everything is lovely” – something she feels is happening more and more in book promotion and which leaves her “jaded”, she says. “‘This is absolutely wonderful’. ‘The greatest book.’ And you think, wow, and you pick it up and you’re thinking, yeah, it’s okay.”

Birch herself is difficult to pin down as an author – motifs of memory, childhood and music may be consistent, but her subject matter and genre have been hugely varied over a career that’s spanned more than three decades.

After studying at Keele University, Birch moved to London where she lived for most of the 1970s, working various jobs including for the English Folk Dance and Song Society. During this time she met her first husband, an artist, and at the beginning of the 1980s they bought a derelict cottage in West Cork, Ireland, rebuilt it and lived there for eight years. It was here she started writing.

“I was just writing about everyday places I’d been to, like about a tower block in Waterloo [1988’s Life in the Palace], and people I’d knocked around with. They were fine, because write what you know.”

Writing Turn Again Home (2003), she says, was a turning point for her. She was writing what she knew – her own family history – when it took her to the jungles of Malaya, where her uncle had been in the military.

“I was writing about a young man, who was only 17 and went from kicking a ball around in Gorton to fighting in the jungles and seeing the most horrible atrocities. I thought, wow, if I can actually write about soldiering in the jungle I can write something else too, so from that I went on to writing some historical stuff.”

The Naming of Eliza Quinn (2005) followed, based on her time in Cork.

“I lived in the middle of nowhere and the famine is on the landscape. You can see the old potato ridges rippling, the abandoned villages, the mass graves – it’s incredibly present.

“There was a lot of survivor guilt of people who came through it because it wasn’t everyone who starved – only the very poor. Within a community people faced these dreadful dilemmas like do you feed yourself? Do you feed your two children while the family down the road is starving, or do you give them some of yours? These terrible, terrible things.”

When her marriage broke down, Birch returned to London and met her second husband while working in a college with special needs teens. By this time she had met an agent and written her first novel.

“It’s hard making a living from writing. I never made much money,” she says. “Then we had a baby. It all happened very, very quickly, but fortunately it’s all worked out. We were living in a shoe box on the side of the road – a tiny little flat in Lambeth – and there was no way that we could get a bigger place. London was just beginning to go sky high.”

Her husband applied for teaching jobs in the North and they landed in Lancaster, a city she fiercely defends.

“I had fond memories of Lancaster – of going through it on the way up to the South Lake District. It’s a really nice little place – a small town – but you can go to Manchester and Liverpool easily enough and you’re right near absolutely gorgeous countryside in the Lakes and the Dales.

“I was very horrified one year to find that it was in the Crap Towns book. I thought, you bastards, because honestly, I can walk in that direction for five minutes and I’m in the middle of a nature reserve with an orchard and wildlife and the canal, and then if I walk in five minutes in that direction I’m in the middle of town, and there’s plenty going on for a small place. I’m glad I brought the boys up here rather than in London.”

But it is fitting that, in her seventieth year, Birch wrote again about the first home she knew. Shadow Girls is her third Manchester book, along with Turn Again Home and Come Back Paddy Reilly (1999), which tied together her Manchester and Irish connections (unsurprisingly for a Mancunian, she has Irish heritage on her father’s side). These days she only returns for concerts, a bit of shopping or to visit her sister in Stockport.

“Manchester has changed a lot. But I’ll always have this soft spot for it, whatever happens, even when I’m not recognising where I am. I will always have that.” n

Shadow Girls is out now, published by Head of Zeus

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