“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”
As I wandered the streets of Brighton on Sunday I couldn’t help but think of L. P. Hartley’s words: how the sights and smells of a place can awaken the past, as it stretches and lingers and slowly creeps up from behind to pull you back to a moment in time, whether pleasant or painful, before it releases its fading grip and returns you to the present.
I’ve only recently returned to the city where I grew up as a boy, after spending four years in London. I’d been back on plenty of occasions during those four years, either for birthdays or Christmases, or just to get some respite from the manic ebb and flow of London life. But the difference between then and now is stark, not least because in those intermittent years I’d faced up to the fact that I’m gay. I’d gone to London to escape who I was, the closeted teenager mimicking friends, clinging to a semblance of what it is to be straight, and I’ve returned a gay man, full of hopes and aspirations.
Part of moving back to Brighton is to set the record straight (or should that be gay?); to enjoy Brighton through the eyes of the person I feel I should’ve always been but who I never allowed myself to be.
As I strolled through the Lanes or along Marine Parade, familiar sights and smells lit the blue touchpaper of the past, producing explosions of memories that shone brightly for brief moments before fizzling away: the streets where I’d ride high above everyone else on my dad’s shoulders; the gay pub where I had my first pint; the pebbles in front of a fishing storage hut where tears were shed by a confused 18 year-old; the vintage shops perused with an old girlfriend (now best friend); the pubs and bars I stumbled from with friends and brothers on nights lost to young abandon. All still fresh in my mind, yet altered by time.
But as I sat and looked beyond the swirling waves, beyond the Palace Pier and out to the point where the sea meets the sky, I knew everything would be okay. I knew those memories would remain in the past and that the vast expanse that stretched out before me held endless possibilities, and the chance to be free.