Even though I was firmly rooted in one place as a child, I struggle to explain where I am from. I was born on the very edge of Frindsbury in Kent, but Frindsbury had been swallowed up by Strood and Strood had been swallowed by Rochester, which was itself merely one of the Medway Towns. It was as baffling as the relationship of England to Britain to the United Kingdom to Europe, a relationship no Venn Diagram could ever adequately capture.
Ours was a liminal existence. My brothers and I wandered downhill to the local Church of England school which was in Wainscott, while our next-door neighbours – for reasons we didn’t understand and never questioned – walked uphill to the Catholic primary school in Strood. According to Google Maps I lived in Wainscott and, according to the Post Office, I lived in Rochester, but we were part of Frindsbury parish and it was the parish which defined our daily existence as much as any town council.
I wrote that we lived on the very edge of Frindsbury but even that statement is not strictly true. The last building in the street was the Sans Pareil pub. The Sanz Parel, we called it, for we (or I, at least) had no idea that the name was French. The mispronunciation was somehow symptomatic of our geographical confusion.
I would like to claim, with Dickens, that “ours was the marsh country, down by the river”, because we could – just about – see the River Medway from our house. But we didn’t live on the marshes and I never met an escaped convict to the best of my knowledge. Nonetheless, it is true that we lived in Dickensian Kent. I dressed up (or down) as a chimney sweep for the annual Dickens Festival – a disturbing experience that I wrote about in Out of the Classroom and Into the World – and we enjoyed visiting the great Norman castle and cathedral that dominated the skyline by the river.
After leaving primary school, we went to secondary school in Rochester, crossing the bridge where Mr Pickwick once stood and changing bus in the high street where Pumblechook had his shop and Mr Tope his house. Then, when the local council decided to touristify the place and public transport was banned from the newly archaized street, we were displaced to a bus stop outside Eastgate House where the chalet in which Dickens was writing The Mystery of Edwin Drood the day before he died had been replanted.
After fifteen years on Frindsbury Hill, we moved a mile up the road, a little closer to Gad’s Hill Place, where Dickens lived in his final years, and Cooling Church, where “five little stone lozenges, each about a foot and a half long” inspired the opening of Great Expectations. It must have been about that time that I first read one of Dickens’ books.
We didn’t have an extended summer break after our O Levels but returned to school for four weeks, the idea being that we could dip our toes into A Level waters. In practice, teachers were given carte blanche to teach us what they wanted, unfettered by the requirements of any exam board. Our French teacher introduced us to Baudelaire and our English teacher set us off on The Pickwick Papers. I look back on that month with great fondness. For perhaps the first time in my life I studied for the sheer pleasure of it, so, even though we ran out of time to read The Pickwick Papers in class, I finished it during the holidays when I was supposed to be reading for the history degree I was about to start.
That was the start of a process by which Dickens’ Rochester became mine, though I don’t remember relating any of the places we read about at the time to places I knew. That came later when, in my twenties, I studied Great Expectations as part of an Open University degree. Part of the novel’s resonance for me was that it had been set so firmly in places I knew but from which I had now moved on.
I read more Dickens after that and plenty of books that were inspired by his novels, especially ones that were inspired by Great Expectations: Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs, Graham Swift’s Waterland, Lloyd Jones’s Mister Pip. This last book even finished on Rochester High Street, though I was slightly disappointed to see that the Little Dorrit Tattoo Parlour didn’t get a mention. If any place symbolised what Dickens had become to 21st century Rochester it was surely that one. A great novel reduced to a marketing tool.
So now, when I return to Frindsbury/Strood/Rochester to see family, I have a sense of the place that has been formed partly by Dickens and partly by my own lived experience. I feel it even when I’m driving over the Dartford bridge on the M25. Here is the marsh country, down by the river, a place created in the imagination and appreciated through the senses. Like the palindromic Pip, I return to where I began and nothing but everything has changed.