In the attempt to avoid becoming, as Ann Quin would put it, an anal-retentive researcher, I stopped constructing vertiginous reading lists on the back of envelopes and actually started writing my PhD. That’s “writing” – by the way – as a peculiar synonym for the masochistic attempt to whittle one’s life down piece-by-piece to the most meagre constituent parts. No kidding, nutbar as I am, the simple task of welding together a few off-cut thoughts to present to your supervisor as the first, blessed fruits of a six-month endeavour somehow becomes prison drama, involving the sitting on a chair for 12 hours, pecking fitfully at keyboard with only the most parsimonious of sustenance (bits of cheese, generic-brand Hobnobs). I find it best to conduct all one’s affairs as if under the governance of some kind of imaginary Evil Stepmother, don’t you?
However, acknowledging that I wasn’t quite being my most perfect self as a 26-year old woman in full control of their faculties, a couple of days ago I went out to get some fresh air. No doubt my housemates appreciated it, the metronome pacing from the attic was probably starting to jar. Now, in a previous life, when I lived in Budapest, this kind of cut-price flaneury was hobby, exercise and anthropology in one. In fact, if you counted the daily heckling from the tramp on the corner of our block, you could pretty much include “social life” too. Once I’d tramped home turf in the 7th, the genteel 5th, the down-and-dirty 8th, and caught the tram out to Budapest’s garden suburbs to be met with a chorus of barks from every dog in the 12th, I did the dusty arterial roads, the panelhaz estates of Angyalföld, the abandoned hotels and boat clubs on the Buda riverside. Needless to say (and this would probably be a fair summing up of the last six months) Durham is not quite the same. Before moving here, I’d made uneasy peace with the fact that the streetlife here would never match the raucous, inexplicable to-ings and fro-ings of Budapest, though Newcastle’s Bigg Market definitely comes close. Though the view from the top of Gilesgate hill, as the cathedral and castle hove into view on stilts will never get old, when I was casting around for something to look at through my camera lens, it’s Durham peculiar brand of urban pastoral that got me.
The city’s chocolate box, of course, and with the tea rooms and bric-a-brac shops that cater for those who come here in search of that kind of thing. In term time, Durham’s numbers double with students – those with the post-coital hair and the vowel sounds that elicit an involuntary wince. As the cobbles and gingerbread peter out, the “city” looks like most northeastern towns – air of somnalence, tinge of deprivity – a thumbprint on the Durham coal field bisected by arterial roads porting buses to unlikely-sounding places (Money Slack! Pity Me?), and watched by the rows of houses slung across the crests of the hills that overlook the city.
The River Wear, which cradles the old part of the city – the cathedral, the castle, the bailey – in the nook of its elbow, begins to meander out towards the A1, and the town recedes. I like this funny hinterland, this corona of crap filled with the bits the city expels and peopled by anoraked dog walkers. Here wooded hollows are home to household waste that has coalesced to form ersatz murder scenes – ropes, rags, bicycle carcasses, bits of barbed wire. There’s a leisure centre that looks more like a circa-Education Act 1944 primary school, not the usual Fosterian conservatory – all low-slung brick, a maze of corridors sized for 8 year-olds. It’s surrounded by a moraine of sporting detritus – inexplicable metalwork, fencing, the apparatus of races past – greige set off by the determined red of the running track and the lawned green of the pitches. Closer town, Durham’s gangs – hardly the Crips, come on – are using the closed-down swimming pool as their HQ – an upgrade from the adventure playground, I guess. Behind there, I found an empty plot razed by fire, and the sandpit, cheery murals and a mess of plastic tricycles that indicated to used to be a nursery.