When I was working down in London at the studio mentioned below, conversations with other staff often turned to anecdotes from our respective pasts. One of my favourite sets of stories centred around various gigs I used to play in my first band in pubs around County Durham. The Derwentside in Consett, the Blackhall Mill Social Club and others. However, my favourite venue to ‘remember’ was the Beamish Mary pub in a town called No Place.
The reality (or as close as I can muster) of the gigs I played there is that there was a fairly conventional open mic gig held there every month or so. Sparsely attended at best, the audience would usually consist of (only) the other musicians due to play that night. Each act would generally play three or four songs, there was occasionally a ‘featured act’ – always a band – who would play for longer. I played at the Beamish Mary maybe five or six times, primarily as a duo with my brother. We mostly did cover versions, though I think once or twice we did an original song. All in all, it was a fairly conventional open mic night, in a fairly conventional pub that happened to be in a place with a strange name.
Now, some of my favourite anecdotes to tell about these nights were true; they really did happen and I don’t think I have embellished the stories too much. As brief examples, there really was once an a cappella performance of the song ‘Mull of Kintyre’ by a man with Tourette’s! I really did overhear a musician asking the owner of the house drum kit whether he had any brushes for the drums. “Brushes? Why would I have brushes for, wor lass doesn’t play drums!” came the reply. Finally, each and every night ended with a rousing, ensemble performance of ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door’. Each and every time, my brother, dad and I felt obliged to stay in the audience to watch. On more than one occasion, we were the only three people in the audience watching some twenty musicians crowding around one microphone. At the end of each performance of ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door’, the organiser would bellow into the microphone “goodnight, and don’t let the bastards grind you down!” My brother, dad and I would thank him for the advice.
Even the brief attempt at remembering the ‘No Place open mic’ personal event ‘as was’ has strayed somewhat into hyperbolic nostalgia, and of course this will always be the case – indeed, is this the point of memory? To be moulded and embellished by the rememberer, the ‘memory-maker’. A matter for another day. The point I want to make here is that when recounting these stories to my colleagues in London, I felt an almost semi-conscious desire to deliberately mis-remember these gigs. I would over emphasise the working class-ness of them, I would claim that the musicians – myself included – would play Geordie folk songs. This wasn’t true. I, for my part, played rock music, with the odd original, most other musicians played typical pub rock/blues ware, one regular exclusively played Bob Dylan songs in what was one of the most toe-curlingly contrived performances I have ever seen. Not only did he have the Dylan vocal lilt and the harmonica around the neck, but he also wore one of those corduroy caps. He may be one of the mitigating factors in why I can’t bring myself to love Bob Dylan! Anyway, I would paint a picture of the venue as a spit-and-sawdust pub, which it sort of was… but not really.
I was engaging in a semi-conscious mis-remembrance of my own past. Maybe ‘mis-remembrance’ is the wrong word, a reconfiguration perhaps is more accurate. For what I was doing is reshaping a memory to present my identity (or represent, construct etc a new identity) in this new location; London. I have, since quite a young age, struggled with staking a claim of ownership to the identity to which I believe I do belong. The notion of ‘being a Geordie’, or even more broadly of ‘being Northern’ holds within it quite a narrow definition. Certain traits are held as being fundamental to that image and collective identity. Chief among them is the notion of being working class. Intrinsically linked to that is the issue of accent. Having a strong (Northern) accent, and I cannot claim any of the credit (or take any of the blame) for asserting this, is quite closely linked to class. Being middle-class and not having a strong accent, I have often felt acutely aware of the incompatibility of my (assumed) personal identity construction and that of the assumed collective identity. Perhaps that is why I feel such a strong – vociferous even – attachment to certain ‘Northern’ aspects; my passion for NUFC, my adoration of the Northumbrian landscape. Yet there still persists an almost guilty feeling in the back of my mind that I am not ‘authentically’ Geordie – emphasised every time someone says “oh, you don’t sound like you’re from the North-East”. “I’m from the posh part”, I self-deprecatingly joke. Each time, I feel my sense of identity questioned.
So, when in London, I felt a simultaneous ability to reclaim a sense of Geordieness in my personal identity, but also, perhaps, a need to state that claim using generic/ perceived traits of that collective identity. I was both unencumbered by certain constraints on my authenticity to the claim of ‘being Geordie’ (there were less people around to claim a ‘more authentic’ Geordieness, or less people to question my asserted Geordieness), but at the same time, I was aware of the need to present that identity in understandable terms to this new audience (and I include myself in that audience, for to who else do we present our identity?). In this new context, the existing memory was recontextualised; it had the Geordie signifiers of working class-ness, unique lexicon, autochthonous folk music, and a rough-and-ready joviality bolted on to it to fit the desired usage of it in the present. The ‘memory’, in this case, is the grain of sand around which an ever-changing pearl of individual identity is formed.
I don’t think it is a particularly contentious assertion that memory, and ‘the past’ more broadly, is always mediated through the prism of the present, and the above example demonstrates this in a very individualised way. But it does beg a number of interrelated questions. ‘If personal memories of events are subject to alteration to fit a contemporaneous need, then what of collective memories?’ ‘Where does the ‘true memory’ lie?’ ‘What is a ‘true’ memory; can such a thing exist?’ ‘If memories are always mediated through the present, are we ever really remembering at all – are memories really memories, or modes of renegotiating identity?’ ‘Are memories always servants to the construction of identity, and where does unconscious remembering – the ‘Proustian Rush’ – come in?’
I was made explicitly aware of my own ‘use’ or reconfiguration of the No Place memories in quite an unusual way, as I was presented with quite a contradictory (and I assume equally manipulated) version of this same event from the perspective of a stranger.
Having worked in the aforementioned recording studio as a runner for around six months, a television producer began to visit regularly as a client; I served her a lot of cups of tea! She was clearly from the North East, and had quite a strong Geordie accent which she had (I think) tried to mask with received pronunciation (of ‘posh’ to be glib about it) affectations. I don’t mean to say that she was being deliberately disingenuous about her ‘true identity’ or attempting to hide it; she had, I found out (from eavesdropping on conversations) been living in London for a long time, maybe it was a natural, unconscious process.
One day, whilst eating lunch (that I had to go and buy for her), she began talking (to someone else, I was eavesdropping again) about a “great little music venue” she used to frequent “just outside of Newcastle”. As the conversation went on (I wasn’t even pretending to be cleaning the coffee machine now!), she described a “venue called the Beamish Mary” in No Place; a venue that “would put on all sorts of exciting new music”. It was always packed with discerning music-lovers in her version, and acts would be invited to come and play.
I was genuinely taken aback by this interpellation into my own memory; as if someone had taken my own past and replayed it to me, yet in a way that I didn’t remember. I realised that many of the constituent elements of my No Place were there – she even describes a couple of bands and musicians that I remembered seeing (though not me and my brother). But it was in the nuance that the difference lay. The slant, the elements emphasised, those forgotten, those augmented and embellished, fabricated (if we’re being harsh) were different from my own, strange, ‘wrong’ (to me). At first I (silently) scoffed at here romanticised lies! She had remembered the Beamish Mary as a bohemian ‘happening’; a cultural hive at which she was present , a space which no one in her London life could know or experience, the ultimate exclusive club!
But her memory was no more a lie than my own remembrance. Without wanting to impose a personality analysis on this person that I vaguely knew, I assume that, like me, the elements of the story that she had chosen to embellish or restate were necessary in establishing, or authenticating, her claim to her own identity. For her, the notion of culture, of exclusivity, of knowing music (and knowing where to go to find music) were important in her identity construction as a creative producer. Possibly, and this is now totally conjecture, she had chosen to reject the notion of the ‘working class Geordie’ to present the region as a cultural hub, and thus herself as a cultured person.
Does this make either of our memories ‘wrong’? I suppose it depends on whether the notion of ‘truth’ is applicable to memory. Can you ever really have an accurate remembrance, can we remember the truth? What this vignette shows is that memory is fluid, that it is in a constant state of flux as it is renegotiated, always in the present, by the memory-maker (the person remembering) for a purpose. How the past is remembered is dependent upon the present into which it is brought. We use memory to define ourselves in the present; it is a device for identity construction.