After dark as the working day winds down, a homeless man sits on the pavement outside the station with his sketchbook open to a detailed drawing of BMAG in Victoria Square. On New Street a team of construction workers, balanced on rooftops, assemble the wooden huts of the Frankfurt German Market. Opening earlier each of the fifteen years I have lived in Birmingham, this year’s start date is so early the trees above the huts are still in full leaf and decked with poppies for Remembrance Day.
In Tesco, a young woman of no more than twenty stands in the doorway rolling a cigarette from a newly purchased packet of tobacco, the envelope hanging open to display its unheeded warning: ‘Smoking kills. Quit now’. Office workers form a long queue which snakes through the shop. Hunched over phones, they tap, swipe and slowly shuffle baskets forward as a single organism, lost in their own individual worlds.
On my way down the hill to the vegetable market while England play South Africa in the final of the Rugby World Cup, roads are turned to rivers and the streets are quiet. Crossing the flooded astroturf in Chinatown, I spot a group of England fans gathered together for a half time smoke outside a budget hotel. A lucky cat waves from the window of a closed café and a row of roasted ducks hangs limply behind steamed up glass in a Cantonese restaurant on the lower floor of the Mapstone building.
I keep a notebook for the stories and scenes I encounter in my everyday life as well as for illustration ideas. It’s a commonplace book, of sorts, and somewhere I note down songs I hear, ideas that I have for new projects, and an assortment of other bits and bobs that I want to remember or use as inspiration in my photography, films or other creative projects.
Nearly three years ago in January 2017 I promised myself that I would no longer contribute to Amazon’s profits, and I stopped shopping with them altogether. I removed my card details from my account and pledged to buy less, buy direct and pay more for the things that I really need or want in life. I object to Amazon’s way of doing business. They don’t pay enough tax, they treat their staff poorly, and their rock bottom prices, whilst enticing, encourage wasteful over-consumption. Whilst I long ago stopped buying books and music on Amazon, favouring bricks and mortar bookshops and record stores, or buying direct from musicians and bands at shows, until January 2017 I used the Amazon marketplace to buy things like camera batteries and replacement parts for household items whenever something broke.
I’ve been thinking a lot about memory lately, about how and why we remember what we do and whether our memories can ever be 100% accurate and objective. It’s a subject that I find fascinating, particularly when I try to piece together my own collection of fragmented memories or hear my mother share her perspective on events that have taken place during her lifetime, but which I’ve heard alternate versions of from other family members. As such I thought I would revisit some of my memories and write them down. My childhood was unusual in many ways because my family moved so often and I spent my early years on a military base in recently reunified Berlin.
My memories, like yours, may not be 100% accurate or objective. This is partly because as time passes we increasingly rely on photographs, videos and the memory itself in order to keep the memory alive, and each of these is partial and subjective, but it is also because hindsight enables us to fill in gaps and more fully make sense of childhood events as an adult, or adult experiences decades after the fact. These fragments are the stories behind my eyes, as I recall them now. I thought I’d start with one of my earliest memories which is the day my family moved from England to Germany when I was four years old.
On my eighth birthday my parents packed up the house in Berlin where we had lived for four years and our family moved back to England. English was my first language, my parents were British, I had gone to an English language school in Germany and I held a British passport, but culturally I didn’t feel British. I didn’t know what a pound or a penny was, having only ever used the Deutsche Mark and Pfennig, and I didn’t know the pop-music or TV shows that were popular among English children my age either. We had SSVC and Cartoon Network in Germany rather than BBC and ITV. I simply didn’t hold the cultural reference points that other children who had grown up in Britain did, and felt like a bit of a misfit.