An Imagined Country

A journey structured around story fragments. Fragments, now imagined as much as remembered.

An Imagined Country

An Imagined Country

This imagined country, known by him from memory, for me was always an image on a screen in a darkened auditorium during weekly visits to the local cinemas in Whitley Bay, the town I grew up in.

I can hear his slow voice, America inflected through Cumbria. Hear him talk about Chicago and staying in Cicero, Capone’s neighbourhood. How he never saw that much violence. He’d sometimes talk about, evoke a vast landscape, desert colours. Pause, sit silently leaving me to imagine what was left unsaid. Other times he’d draw it out in a nervous, spidery line. But most of all what I remember is a sense of the road, so real in the telling.

This journey is structured around significant locations reflected in the story fragments my father left me, tales he told during long walks on the Northumberland coast. Fragments, now imagined as much as remembered; those stories were told years ago, I too forget.

 

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An Imagined Country took as its starting point some fragmentary images and a story that continue to haunt me.

It’s a couple of years after WW1 and my father, aged 17 years, walks out of his home in Maryport, Cumberland, to buy cigarettes for my grandfather. He returns around 17 years later after working his passage to Chicago to see one of his brothers and then wandering across America. This story, a defining feature of my childhood, was often used as a weapon in the brittle, corrosive relationship between my parents.

We travelled, Teresa Cairns & I, across the USA during the autumn of 2011 retracing what I remember of my father’s journeys. Tracing fragments in the echoes of the economic boom and downturn of 20th century America, listening to individuals’ stories about negotiating the current economic crisis in contemporary America.

In the 1920/30s my father travelled across a country that was beginning to impose immigration quotas, to close borders. He travelled during a time of prosperity, and economic collapse. It is these strands and echoes we engaged with.

The conflict between truth and fiction, a dialogue between the real and the imagined, and the role stories play in defining the family narrative; that’s the motivation. ‘Truth’ in the form of evidence, if available at all, is almost always subject to interpretation, ‘home’ and ‘belonging’ as boundaries filtered through memory and experience, landscape and locality as markers of identity, all located in the richness of the ordinary and everyday. This is what we found.