Doing Things Differently

I recently re-read Jan Mark’s book They do things differently there and I have been enjoying its sparking juvenile and adult wit all over again. Of all her books, this is the one I think of as “mine”, and I’d like to tell you why.

The title is a famous quotation from L.P. Hartley’s novel about a short transformative period of a distant childhood – “The past is another country: they do things differently there.” That’s what Jan’s book is about – a lost past. I believe it was initially inspired by her reaction to the makeover of the town of Ashford, where she and I met at secondary school. I’m told that as an adult she took strongly against the new fake cobbled streets, pedestrian areas, wrought-iron street lamps, hanging flower baskets, coffee bars (she pushed this prettification further in her merciless depiction of Compton Rosehay). Coming back to Ashford after many years I too found that the old town (grimy and functional and full of railway yards) was efficiently drowned by this cosmetic revolution, with only a few buildings recognizable and a few streets still visibly running in their original courses. Even the Ashford Tank, that patriotic memento of WW2, was hardly identifiable – now wrapped in multi-coloured flashing lights and designated an official teenage play space. So the setting of her adolescence and mine was erased and left to memory.

What Jan perceived – well, let’s call her Flea, because that was her name among us at that time – what Flea told us in the book, was that the old town was still there, coterminous with the new, inhabiting the same space, but invisible. This must be a common experience for people who try to “go back” to places which enshrine their own histories. For example, my dead sister’s house has been refurbished and restored bit by bit by my handyman nephew; the books and pictures have been removed, the walls cleaned and painted and bright new furniture installed. It looks very nice and of course he was right to do it. But the old house, the real and symbolic home of my family - sister, dog, poverty, alcoholic Greek husband, Aeschylean conflicts and dramas, a frightened child, moments of great companionship and imagination - has been effaced. It is an act of memory and faith to believe it is still there lurking behind IKEA and white paint. In such circumstances, some people feel a responsibility to recreate the past.

Flea’s plunge back into the old Ashford paralleled the book’s foray into the dark secrets of Stalemate. What did she conjure up when she dug back? One complex of memories was the school, which I think was a huge inspiration for her – a place which gave her talents their head, a place where she could succeed, and an entry to cultural worlds (music, drama, literature) which Ashford didn’t provide a lot of. Another was the social fabric. I was struck when reading the book again how much she was embedded in Ashford’s adolescent society, which I had no part of and can hardly recall. And a third thing was a memory of me, and of the games of imagination we played with the grimy red-black town around us.

Obviously the Elaine character in the book is not just me, but there is some overlap. I recognize some physical details: Elaine’s house with the vegetable garden, fruit bushes and fruit trees; the carrots and the gardening mother; the view from front through to back; the attic bedroom; the tea-chest sofa; the older sibling at university (my sister, Elaine’s brother); the engineer father with the saw (my father was always sawing something); the names of the parents (Marge and John, my parents’ names) and the fact that I called them by their names; the physical size (all big people, Flea was much smaller); the fact that we were aliens (came from nowhere, didn’t fit in, had no television, moved on and disappeared); the fact that she came to my house whereas I never went to hers.

But for me the clincher is the relationship. Walking around Ashford and fantasizing about its houses and inhabitants, building a private world, that is what we did as we walked down the town to the bus-stop on weekdays. (On Saturdays we did things for the Young Socialists - another thing which singled us out: we were the only two in the school).

I remember only fragments of the fantasies – the tattoed fish, Clyster the adulterer and the Combat Sisters, and certainly we would have put in something irreverent about God, since we were both of an atheistic turn (another thing that marked us out). Flea, on the other hand, transformed the whole experience. She presents this adventure of the imagination as an emotional need. The Elaine-figure sparks it off and leads the dance. Flea says Charlotte couldn’t do it without Elaine; my guess is that Elaine couldn’t do it without Charlotte either. I didn’t invent (or have anything to do with) Stalemate itself, its map, its relationship with Compton Rosehay. And the coherence, the professional storyteller’s build-up, are all hers. Flippant ghoulish fantasies develop into social networks and collapse into a stark modern reality with the persecution of the Martians; at the end, after eliminating most of the population, she switches the whole thing off with that brilliant widdershins device which annihilates Stalemate and terminates the game. It is moving as well as clever, and the pace and tension are just right. This is a real read-aloud book.

And that was the end of that. We both went away to study. Why didn’t the relationship continue? Why didn’t we meet up in the holidays? We did once or twice. Did we both fall away? I have no recollection. I went back abroad – I was never English as she was. She moved, although she stuck to England. We both married and changed our surnames and lost touch: in those days there was no internet or e-mail or Facebook. Perhaps she is right in the book when she says that the friendship needed that daily impetus from an environment which we both felt to be somewhat alien to us, which we were bound to react against and against which we reacted in the same way. Perhaps we felt a bit lost: we had both come from outside – she from another town and I as an exile from South Africa. I always assumed that, if I found her again, she would need rescuing. I couldn’t have been more wrong: she was in the end a lot tougher than me.

Later in life I tried to find her again several times. I only succeeded when she died and her maiden name Brisland, the name I knew her by, at last found its way onto the internet. I don’t know if she tried to find me. However, at the end of the book Charlotte takes up her pen to write Elaine a letter, but writes this book instead. So I’d like to take They do things differently as a kind of letter to me, pushed out in a bottle. This is my reply.

Jane Sherman
Rome, December 2009