Migration and imagined space in Joe Pemberton’s novel Forever and Ever Amen

Robert Crawshaw and Corinne Fowler


IMAGE 1 - Michael Gutteridge, “Manchester Street during HM The Queen’s Silver Jubillee Celebrations 2002”, 2003, Painting, Acrylic




While literature has long been seen by historians, sociologists  and geographers as determining collective perceptions of place,[1] it is only relatively recently, as the blurred boundaries between documentary and “re-imagining” have become more intensively theorized, that creative writing has been accepted as an important resource for social science research. This essay argues that certain types of “poetic” text [2] extend the traditional limits of ethnography to a point where creative output becomes a data source in its own right, offering new understandings of the overlapping layers of experience which characterize life in culturally mixed environments [3] and bringing together the global and the local within a single “imagined space.” Joe Pemberton’s auto-bio-graphical novel Forever and Ever Amen (2000)[4] depicts the childhood experiences of the nine-year-old son of a Caribbean couple. It explores migration and “post-memory”[5]through the fictional representation of two distinctive locations: Moss Side in Manchesterand the Caribbean island of St Kitts. Through the inner life of a British born child of West Indian immigrants, Moss Side is revealed as a “glocality”: a tangibly “real,” urban environment which is nevertheless imbued with the “absent presence” of other lives and places. The novel thereby illustrates certain processes of identification which are directly relevant to research into migration, mobility and life in multiracial Britain. Its technique of layering allows voices from different times and locations to be heard virtually simultaneously, promoting what Gopindath characterizes as a comparative, “deep-ethnographic” approach to the understanding of regional cultures.[6]


Imagined space and the public historical imagination


Novels like Pemberton’s offer insight into at least three related phenomena whereby events publicly recognized as “real” are integrated into the subjective vision of an author/narrator. The first is the link between personal experience and the public historical imagination, a relationship explored in detail in Annette Kuhn’s intensely autobiographical Family Secrets.[7] Kuhn describes a highly pleasurable, remembered experience drawn from her own life when “treading the pavement outside the BritishMuseum’s main entrance” (FS, 135), which she compares with an analogous experience derived from cinema. She argues that, without having first encountered this particularmise-en-scène as a point of reference, she would not have been able to recall her real life experience so vividly, especially given that she was at first only able to recapture part of the lived scene. She presents this sub-conscious process as one example of the way in which mental life imitates art. “Our inner worlds”, she writes, “can be shaped by a cinematic imagination – or perhaps […] cinema mimics the workings of our inner worlds” (FS, 135). In this case, the cinematic comparator to which she refers is the famous wartime documentary Listen to Britain.[8] One real, metonymical process (that of recalling the image of the plane trees outside the British Museum and thereby recreating the complete sense of “being there”) is recalled by association with another (the film sequence showing Myra Hess playing the piano in a National Gallery devoid of pictures and thus famously evoking the historical reality of Britain at war). Kuhn is illustrating the way in which artistic representations of an iconic historical moment can condition real life responses in an entirely different time and place by raising to consciousness associations which might otherwise remain subliminal. Like Lefebvre,[9] Kuhn describes this process of temporal and spatial transfer as “metaphorical”.


The second exploratory dimension of FEA lies in Pemberton’s representation of the relationship between “produced” and “imagined space” (“espace mental”).[10] According to Lefebvre, “imagined space” was distinguishable from the material outcome of economic forces, shaped by public policy, architects’ drawings, planning regimes and so on. Yet, as is now accepted as axiomatic within social geography,[11] “space”, “place” and time according to Lefebvre were as much mental constructs as they were the product of external, physical boundaries. The two dimensions were distinct yet complementary and interactive. Taking the argument one step further, the relationship between “produced” and “imagined” space could be seen as analogous to that between the public and the private or, further still, between matter and agency, that is the way in which we, as individuals, respond to the physical spaces around us. Latent in the minds of citizens, the agentive character of individuals’ responses to “produced space” finds expression in their physical movements: their body language, the patterns of mobility in their daily lives, their physical interactions with others – and in their language: what they say or write in and about the spaces they occupy. It is also reflected in the arrangements of objects (personal belongings and so on) in private spaces such as the home. This view of space and time as the extension of an individual’s “state of being” can be directly linked to Heidegger’s notion of Dasein[12] in which space takes on an ontological dimension: an expression of who we are and what we want to achieve. The production of “social space” is therefore the outcome of a ceaseless dynamic between the imagined and the material which can be equated to that between the individual and the social and physical environment.


Observed patterns of behaviour, as well as the economic factors which condition them, can be studied empirically. The evidence of closed circuit television monitoring of public places and other (more or less) invisible panoptic devices such as hand-held mobile phone cameras provides additional data for these actions to be monitored and classified. Yet while the results of such studies are central to the work of architects, social geographers, ethnographers, planners and engineers, they offer in themselves a necessarily superficial, literally external, “othered” representation of the way in which spaces are constructed mentally by the subjects who “enhabit” them. Neither can such “reconstructions” capture the symbolic, psychological reality of the relationships which result from such imaginings and which, for Heidegger, constitute the basis for future action on the part of the individual. Similar, if less obvious, shortcomings inevitably attend the recording of real life verbal interchange, “authentic” documents produced in the spaces concerned or verbal testimony gathered under experimentally controlled conditions, even if such data accompany the type of analysis mentioned above. By contrast, creative text, whatever the medium of expression, raises to consciousness psychological impulses which might otherwise be taken for granted, repressed or simply overlooked. More than that, it can arouse in readers/listeners/viewers sentient responses with which they identify so strongly that they involuntarily import corresponding processes of representation into other areas of their lives. While this may seem like a long-standing argument in favour of a “humanities” approach to understanding the condition of the individual in history and society, in terms of the application of literature to social science research, we wish to argue that, from a methodological point of view, each type of data is incomplete without the other and, within a historically grounded ethnography of space, should be seen as part of a mutually complementary analytical approach.


Secondarily, and more significantly in relation to the interplay between the private and public spheres, the relationship between imagined space as represented by individuals in creative text and its real life referents is redefined by the cultural institutions which control and design the space itself. Seen from this critically discursive perspective, the use of creative text by public agencies becomes an integral element in the process of spatial production. In short, there is an interaction between literature and material life which is mediated by social and political institutions. In certain instances, a complete evolutionary cycle is enacted: from produced space to imagined space and back again – but transformed and re-appropriated according to the ideological priorities of the official institution concerned. Thus through the repeated use, even adaptation, of text by agencies other than the named author, a phenomenon we have chosen to term “intertextual layering,” the interaction between “mental space” and “produced space” becomes part of a continuous process whereby “social space” is generated.


The third aspect of Pemberton’s text relevant to the present discussion is what Lash and Urry, Massey and others, following Heidegger, have referred to as “space-time compression.”[13] From this perspective, FEA offers as telling an argument in favour of associative imagining over empirical measurement as the work of the celebrated writer and academic W.G.Sebald. Published only months before his tragic death in a car accident in December 2001, Sebald’s last novel Austerlitz[14] meditates on the processes whereby links are created between the events of history and individuals’ remembered past, and, at a more metaphysical level, what these processes tell us about the future of civilisation. In so doing, Sebald contrasts the involuntary recall of lived events (mneme) with deliberate reconstruction based on second-hand information derived from narratives, archival records and accepted historical facts (anamnesis).[15] When regulated by public institutions, the latter are seen to be constraining, potentially inauthentic, and almost invariably ideologically driven. The past for Sebald is seared by the suffering endured by individuals as a consequence of macro-historical events over which they have had little control. Historical “truth” can only be arrived at through the merging of public events and private experience mediated by far-sighted, well informed individuals – such as Sebald himself and his principal protagonists. Personal imagination and a visceral empathy with the past offer a bleak prophetic window on the future, yet only these hold out any hope of redemption for contemporary civilisation. The peculiar quality of an “informed imagination” of this kind is that it allows for past, present and future events to be collapsed within a single Gestalt, lending a prophetic status to the vision of the character concerned, one which enables him to commune with the dead and anticipate the direction of future events. According to a syllogistic process of negative logic: X (the physical measurement of time and space) is demonstrably only relatively true, therefore Y (the mental compression of time and space) has a potentially equal claim to truth, Sebald makes a case for the pre-eminence of the imagined over the physical:


Could we not claim, said Austerlitz, that time itself has been non-concurrent over the centuries and the millennia? It is not so long ago, after all, that it began spreading out over everything. […] In fact, said Austerlitz, I have never owned a clock of any kind, a bedside alarm or a pocket watch, let alone a wristwatch. A clock has always struck me as something ridiculous, a thoroughly mendacious object, perhaps because I have always resisted the power of time out of some internal compulsion which I myself have never understood, keeping myself apart from so-called current events in the hope, as I now think, said Austerlitz, that time will not pass away, has not passed away, that I can turn back and go behind it, and there I shall find everything as it once was, or more precisely that I shall find that all moments of time have co-existed simultaneously, in which case none of what history tells us is true, past events have not yet occurred but are waiting to do so at the moment we think of them,[16] although that, of course, opens up the bleak prospect of ever-lasting misery and never-ending anguish. (A, 114)


Sebald’s vision has a strong metaphysical dimension and FEA resembles Austerlitz in the sense that the mental fusion of past, present and future takes precedence over the physical, linear representation of events, thereby subordinating the validity of “official” historical data to the impact of history on individual lives.


The combination of metaphorical association, space-time compression and intertextual layering are narrative features which lend FEA enduring interest as a text about family resettlement, childhood, memory and historyThe novel describes a young boy’s upbringing in the Moss Side area of Manchester over a time period corresponding, in a virtual sense, to his ninth year, at which point he was attending primary school. The boy, fictitiously called James yet unambiguously identified as the narrator’s alter ego, is the child of parents who have migrated separately to England from St. Kitts, a former British colony in the West Indies, his father towards the end of the 1950s, his mother somewhat later. James’ childhood in Moss Side is represented retrospectively as a place of transition. The family plans to move to Ashton-under-Lyne, an old Lancashire cotton town (now a suburb of the metropolitan area of the city of Manchester.) This anticipated event dominates Pemberton’s reconstruction of James’ recollections. The book’s title For ever and ever Amen recurs as a leitmotiv throughout the text. The phrase, which is repeated at the book’s close, implies an “after-life,” the grail which ends the quest, a point of “arrival” rendered heavily ironic by the preface of the book which shows the author mentally striving at his computer as he looks back to the period preceding the move. The family’s dream of fulfilment has evidently been thwarted. Given James’s (aka Pemberton’s) series of encounters with British racism, subtly interspersed throughout the novel, his wellbeing is not assured; stories do not end happily ever after. While the eventual move is perhaps viewed as a final rite of passage by James’ parents, for the author/narrator, it is analogous to their earlier displacement from the West Indies. The cycle of experience re-echoes the migratory transposition which has already taken place and anticipates the subsequent development of the real life narrator to the point where he decides to write the book.


Despite the effectiveness of devices which offer a subjective perspective on history, the text of FEA remains nevertheless physically grounded in specific times and places. Pemberton the writer insists that the events in the book derive at least in part from historically verified incidents or from the narrator/protagonist’s personal experience. Their representation stems directly or indirectly from “real life.” The novel thereby fulfils a vital discursive function of literature: that of challenging “official” descriptions of events and places. Pemberton is adamant that the novel’s relationship to lived experience is crucial to the purpose of countering stereotyped constructions of Moss Side:


 [Forever and Ever Amen is] not a story of shootings, drugs, rioting and street crime, because that’s not what I grew up with or how I remember it. It is a world of Milky Bars and Mojo sweets, Whizzer and Chips comics, of TCP for cuts on your knees, Top of the Pops, Live at the London Palladium, Animal Magic, Fanny Craddock on TV cooking, and of Robert Kennedy being shot.[17]


By stating that his is “not a story of shootings, drugs, rioting and street crime”, Pemberton writes “another kind of story” about an area that began to be identified as a social problem in the 1980s. In this way, the novel counteracts the popular belief that Moss Side has always been troubled. By asserting “that’s not what I grew up with or how I remember it,” the author recuperates his autobiographical experience as a means of contesting dominant norms of representation.


Creating an historical counter-discourse


Independently of Pemberton’s comments and more pertinently in relation to this essay’s core topic, the text’s status as a counter discourse is embedded in its narrative structure. This is openly demonstrated in the preface through the device of an imaginary discussion between the narrator, his immediate family, a neighbour and his future character James.


I tell them there’s no story anyway, not the way they tell it. It’s all bits and pieces, just little stories one by one. Okay by themselves, but not as a novel. A novel must have structure, a narrative form, a plot; a novel must have a plot.  (FEA, 3)


This claim illustrates the workings of the individual memory in ways that imply a postmodern sensibility: there is no grand narrative (“no story anyway, not the way they tell it”), only little narratives (“little stories one by one”). The pronoun ‘they’ conveys implicit suspicion towards official versions of history, to be countered by the immediacy of the characters’ personal experiences made valid by the mediation of the narrator himself. The narrative is a work of imagination, yet its relationship to real life, both in the past and in the narrative present, is made immediately explicit:


It’s me that’s holding the pen, it’s me that stares at a blank computer screen, hour after hour, instead of having a life. It’s me, myself, I, Joseph Emmanuel Pemberton, Ashton-under-Lyne,Lancashire, England. […] James has always been there, I can’t ever remember a time when he wasn’t. He was the perfect companion when you were the only boy in a houseful of sisters, mums, aunts and female cousins, but absolutely of no use whatsoever when you’re on the wrong side of thirty-nine years old and counting. (FEA, 1)


The text of FEA is indeed divided into a preface and 32 mini-chapters, each a remembered anecdote whose situation in real or narrated time is never made explicit. The mini-chapters support the above assertion that “little stories are where it’s at.” The order of the chapters defies chronological linearity. In some instances, broadly similar anecdotes recur as separate chapters, with details being added or modified, reflecting the uneven processes of memorialisation. In others, an individual event, such as the crashing of an aeroplane, the death of a traffic controller, the order to carry rum to the foreman of a cane-cutting gang in the West Indies, the suicide of a near neighbour, are repeated in a slightly different form in a manner reminiscent of Proust or the nouveau roman of the 1960s. The driving logic behind the narrative structure, which is itself not at first evident, is that it replicates the mental process whereby the young James gradually grows to understand the full significance of his own memories and the multiple, half-remembered fragments of stories told to him by his parents, other relations, and ageing neighbours from Moss Side who befriend him.


Equally central to James’ maturation is the young boy’s capacity to fuse the physical environment of Moss Side (based on snippets from Pemberton’s real life) with the imagined reality derived from public narratives transmitted through the medium of television or popular music. Such mental reconstructions of attested historical events include the Titanic disaster, the moon landing, the accidental sinking of the overloaded ferry Christina in 1971 in the post-carnival crossing from St. Kitts to Nevis, the Munich air-crash of 1958 in which several of the young Manchester United football team lost their lives, and the comprehensive destruction of the area around Moss-Side in the late 1960s. In alluding to these occurrences, the narrator consciously draws attention to the derivative quality of his own narrative, and, as with Kuhn, to the capacity of narrative generally to mould mental processes. In the following passage, the narrator considers the role of The Sound of Music and the long-running Manchester-based soap operaCoronation Street in conditioning and even distorting the representation of past experience, his own and that of others:


If it was the beginning it would be like the beginning of The Sound of Music, you know where the camera flew through the skies over mountains and snow-covered dales until it flew right down and almost hit Julie Andrews in the back of the head. It was a lot like that only this was not snow covered mountains and the Moss Side skies were packed with smog-filled clouds. Apart from that it was much the same as the camera zoomed down through the clouds until a row of houses came into view. Coronation Street with coloured people that was Cadogen Street. They weren’t all coloured people though, a few of them were white like those ones at the end of the road. (FEA,  27)     


This recourse to a shared domain of popular culture has a critical edge. “Cadogan Street” operates as a discomforting pararhyme as Coronation Street’s excluded “other,” foregrounding a repeated act of omission in popular representations of Northern Englandviz. that of racial exclusion. The sentence, “Coronation Street with coloured people, that was Cadogen Street,” corrects this omission by reinserting a black presence but in inclusive terms: “they weren’t all coloured people though.” Meanwhile, the cinematographic metaphor of the zooming camera is an obvious reminder that popular views of Northern England remain constrained by long-standing televised representations which have become landmarks in British culture. By likening it to the close-knit neighbourhood of Coronation Street, the passage reclaims, and to some extent tames, Moss Side’s violent image.[18]


Notwithstanding the novel’s many references to real places and events, reality and fantasy become more or less completely merged within the text. The often bleak, yet colourful, physical reality of the young protagonist’s upbringing is immediately juxtaposed with his inner world to the point where poetic imagination dominates. On the one hand, Cadogen Street, the location of the family home in Moss Side, is described in detail, as are James’ school, Greenheys Primary, the bus he catches to get there (“the 53 on Great Western Street” [FEA, 121]) and the journey taken by James’ father to his work at the Walls sausage factory. The names of sweets (e.g. mojos) or television programmes such as “Sunday Night at the London Palladium” position the “real life” events of the text in the late 1960s. Individual streets (Fairlawn Street, St. Bees Street and others) destroyed at this time in the devastating urban redevelopment of Moss Side, are referred to directly, as is Brimstone Hill, where the British withstood a prolonged siege by the French colonists of St Kitts in 1782.[19] However, what lends the text its surreal quality is the intercutting of these references with descriptions of events from completely different times and places, events which are represented as having had at least as great an impact on the development of James’ identity as his “real life” experiences. Narratologically, this multilayering invokes a process which is exactly analogous with that described by Kuhn in that part of a remembered event from real life is instantaneously transferred to another which is temporally and spatially distanced from the first and based on a narrated source. Or alternatively, as suggested by Kuhn, the transfer is in the other direction: from narrated source to “reality.”


In many cases, the shift from “reconstructed reality” to imagination is marked by a change of type face, in the same way as the hazy fadeouts in the classic 1960s films Billy Liar and The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner signal the move from physical to mental states. It is intimated that these phase-changes take place just before James goes to sleep and that the psychological disturbance of the dream causes him to wet his bed. Sometimes, on the other hand, where the imagined scene is happily resolved, it stops him from doing so. On other occasions, the shift occurs in the middle of a family discussion or in the street outside the house when traumatic noises of domestic violence cause James to seek refuge in his inner mind. However, in a few cases, there is no shift at all. In these instances, the complete chapter is represented in bold type, implying that the whole event is imagined and outside time. In either event, the shifts reflect processes of transition: between different cultures and different generations, childhood and adolescence, pre-war and post-war Manchester, St Kitts and Cadogen Street, Moss Side and the new home inAshton-under-Lyne.


An important instrument in engineering the transfer between realities within James’s virtual space is his (aka Pemberton’s) recourse to a character who acts – literally and figuratively – as a medium. Aunty Mary is an ageing white neighbour in Cadogen Street(not biologically related to James) who is very close to James as a mother figure and friend but dies in the course of the first chapter. Thereafter, she reappears in James’ dream sequences as a larger than life mentor. She tells James stories dating back to the war and beyond to her early childhood and explains the background to unexplained events in neighbours’ houses. She even intervenes in scenes set in St. Kitts where James, in his imagination, replicates tasks undertaken by his mother and father during their subaltern, West Indian adolescence as household servants, apprentice odd-job men or illicit rum-carriers for the cutters of sugar cane. In order to evoke episodes from Mary’s own life story, including the wartime setting of her early womanhood, James’ imagines what he calls the “Aunty Mary Show” in which different fragments of the interlocking stories are brought together. Her final appearance in a surreal, Kafkaesque street carnival precedes the synthetic account of James’ West Indian family background which, in pulling all the threads of the story together, ends the book.


Alternative cartographies of social and historical space


FEA demonstrates the potential of narratives informed by the experience of migration to sketch what Roger Rouse terms “alternative cartographies of social space.”[20] The novel accomplishes this by collapsing two primary locations and multiple time phases within the mental space of its main character. The “primary” virtual places are Moss Side and St. Kitts. However, the memory span of Aunty Mary and her contemporaries enables the time-frame of the Mancunian setting to be extended, within James’ mind at least, to the 1930s, while the reconstructed stories of his West Indian grandparents go back just as far. As with Sebald’s main protagonist, Jacques Austerlitz, Aunty Mary’s transcendent reality lends her prophetic status. She is able to explain some of the contradictions of her own life as a woman who has never married because she enrolled as a nurse during the war. She has sustained a long-standing relationship with her former lover and companion, Jake (aka Arthur), who outlives her having himself married during Mary’s wartime absence. She is also represented as a humane, even saint-like figure who takes in a homeless child, Miriam. Later, when she becomes pregnant by a black man, Miriam tragically commits suicide while her daughter, a close school friend of James, is taken into care. Aunty Mary emerges as the archetypal symbol of an historical period and place, while the primary medium for James’ window on the West Indies are his mother, his father and his great aunt, whose tangled stories are finally unravelled – with Aunty Mary’s assistance – through James’ own imaginings. These two separate, mediated, worlds are superimposed on the reconstruction of a single, symbolic year – 1969-70 – embracing events of which some, in reality, took place outside that timeframe.


Two excerpts illustrate the way in which Pemberton manipulates time and space through the mind of the young James. The first incorporates Aunty Mary and his great aunt Vernice who was the source of a story set in St.Kitts in 1950 about an annual village picnic on Brimstone Hill. James has become aware of the event from a photograph in Aunty Vernice’s album. He has carried an image of it in his head and has since pressed his great aunt for further details. Possible intertexts for the passage are the New Testament stories of “the feeding of the five thousand” and “the Gadarene swine,” though whether this metaphorical transfer is the product of James’s imagination or Vernice’s is not made clear. The story and the setting are deliberately confused with others. Aunty Mary has asked James to obtain a packet of Walls sausages from his mother. Apart from being interchangeable with another dream episode set in St Kitts (FEA,  68-69) where an unknown West-Indian woman (aka Vernice) asks James (aka his own mother as a young girl) to carry a flask of rum to cane-cutters, the reference to sausages is clearly a subliminal reminder of James’ father’s work at the Walls factory in Manchester. The “ground” of the mixed metaphors linking the Brimstone Hill picnic to other episodes in the book is thus the act of asking a young person to “run an errand.”  This elides different generations, different characters, different physical and cultural contexts and different points in time. In James’s vision of the picnic, Aunty Mary (as a supernatural being) is serving seemingly endless quantities of sausages to the picnicking villagers, an image of the production line evidently derived from James’s father’s accounts of life in the sausage factory. Meanwhile, in the rush to avoid a heavy rainstorm, Vernice has apparently claimed that a number of villagers were pushed off the steep cliff. However, doubt is cast on this version of events. Vernice is prone to exaggeration and, as James’ vision unfolds, the accident seems never to have occurred.[21]  The whole scene has become an episode in James’ imaginary world in which characters and anecdotes from real life in Moss Side and stories of the life of the previous generation in St. Kitts have merged:


There must have been a whole village there, all dressed in their Sunday best because coloured people always dressed in their best whenever they went out. By now there was a real party atmosphere, it could have been a carnival only there was no steel band. Aunty Mary and her endless plates of sausages were the centre of attraction.


‘Single file or no one gets served.’


Everyone laughed because everyone knew the English were crazy if the letters from relatives were anything to go by. Even so, they formed a queue because it would’ve been bad manners not to. And everyone was calling her Aunty Mary by now. Not that she minded, she was loving every minute of it, sleeves rolled up, cheerfully red-faced, dishing out sausages on sticks by the five thousand.


‘It’s just like the war. Seconds anyone?’  Mary looked up to the skies. ‘Looks like rain.’ Then she noticed James wasn’t eating. ‘What’s up James, lost your appetite?’


Ever since they’d arrived, James saw that the people were dressed strange, even for St. Kitts. It was like one of those black and white photos from Aunty Vernice’s album, the one she kept in the china cabinet. From when she was a little girl, she said. The whole of the village had been in the picture, it had been taken just before they’d set off for the annual picnic on Brimstone Hill.


‘You look as if you’d seen a ghost, James.’


If Aunty Vernice’s stories were true then she was right or she would be once the rains started, and the crowds would rush for cover from the rain, and rain poured down and they pushed and jostled each other so much that some were pushed off the hill down to the rocks below.


‘They’d been up all night ironing their hair straight. They didn’t want their hair to get wet. You know what it’s like when it gets wet, it goes frizzy again,’ Aunty Vernice had said on one of the many visits to her house when James had asked why.


Aunty Mary would have none of it.


‘Absolute hogwash!  Why would anyone throw themselves off this beautiful hill?’ she said as she pointed to where the hill dropped down to the rocks below. And everyone laughed because no one was about to drop off any hill, especially when there were lots of sausages left. (FEA, 151-2)


A similar doubling up process occurs later in the book in which temporally dislocated events are fused as if in split frame within the context of a dream sequence. The figure of a young, impoverished girl mysteriously materializes in the street. She closely resembles the girl who had previously stolen money from James, earning him a beating at the hands of his father. James is about to attack her, but is prevented from doing so by the omnipresent Aunty Mary. The girl is transformed into the childish figure of the homeless Miriam, forced through hunger to steal milk from the neighbours’ doorways. As confirmation of the superposition of different timeframes, a younger version of Aunty Mary is called into being, welcoming the wretched girl into her home. The episode occurs at a point in the book after Miriam’s suicide. As such, it constitutes a form of retrospective explanation for it. The scene can be read as a metonym of the long-term effects of social deprivation in Moss Side on the homeless children of poor families, white as well as black, all seen through the eyes of a pre-adolescent child of immigrants:


It was Aunty Mary’s show – THE AUNTY MARY SHOW in big bright lights and as usual with Aunty Mary she had to do things her own way come hell or high water, whatever that meant. So there they were, in the middle of Cadogen Street and dunking arrowroot biscuits in a cup of tea because all the nice ones had been eaten by then.


‘Don’t leave it in for long or else… see I told you,’ said Aunty Mary trying hard to sound vexed. But James had only left it in because he was distracted by the little girl in a scruffy overcoat who was looking inside the milk bottles on the doorsteps and shaking them.


‘Hey, that’s the girl who stole my money.’  And before James could run over and bash her brains in, Aunty Mary patted him on the shoulder.


‘Whoa there young man.’


So James sat back, determined to give the little girl a good piece of his mind once Aunty Mary’s back was turned.


‘Miriam was a scruffy little thing,’ said Aunty Mary like she was wanting to cry but couldn’t. ‘She never did say where she came from, I never thought to ask. Look she’s at my door now. And I thought it was sparrows. Oh James, if I’d known it was her, I’d have left more than two bob.’


Just then Aunty Mary’s front door opened and out stepped a young woman in a dressing gown and pink fluffy slippers.


‘I was good looking back then, don’t you think? No girdle neither.’


The little girl stood frozen to the spot like she’d been caught doing something naughty. She had of course. The young woman smiled and held out her arms. Then both Aunty Mary and the young woman said the same thing at the same time.


‘Come in out of the cold, dear. Don’t worry, I won’t bite.’ (FEA, 159-161)


As the above extracts demonstrate, FEA can be read as a powerful illustration of the effects of parental immigration on the outlook of a young, British born boy. This does not preclude other readings of the book, but the effects of James’ family’s experiences on his own mental development are vividly recaptured through the dream-like fusion of time and place in which Moss Side and St. Kitts become virtually interchangeable. Within James’ world, the themes of colonial exploitation and racial prejudice within Britainbecome directly linked, even though, as we have shown, the book is completely even-handed in its treatment of Moss Side’s inhabitants, black and white. In one wholly imagined chapter which merges the sinking of the Titanic (inspired by the 1958 film A Night to Remember starring Kenneth More) and the 1971 Christina disaster, Aunty Mary and James find themselves in a lifeboat. They offer a place in the boat to a black woman who closely resembles an inhabitant of Cadogen Street. The woman, who holds the “wrong” type of ticket (red) refuses the offer on the grounds that she is “not allowed” (FEA, 126), to which Aunty Mary, in a vain attempt to make her change her mind shouts: “If anyone asks, you don’t live round here, okay? Say you’re visiting a sick friend and you have absolutely no intention of moving in next door.” (FEA, 127). The stereotypical merging of a fictionalized yet historically derived lifeboat image with the principle of social exclusion powerfully equates the overlapping contexts of Moss Side and St.Kitts. It reflects the book’s symbolic validity as an intercultural microcosm which offers a comparative and deep-ethnographic approach to the experience of displacement. In the “alternative cartography” presented by FEA, the separate referential codes of St Kitts and Moss Side coexist in a form of “border zone,”[22] thereby demonstrating how the “global” and the “local” become imaginatively blended.[23]     




Apart from offering a metaphorical complement to more empirical analyzes of migration and resettlement, FEA also serves to illustrate the way in which such narratives can themselves become instruments of social change. Pemberton’s novel has been incorporated into the public consciousness in ways which redefine the public perception of place and mobility. With the author’s approval, the novel has now emerged as a text used by Manchester Metropolitan Council for educational purposes:




Images of the locations in Manchester described in the book feature as contemporary, black and white photographs from the 1960s, designed to show the city as it then was. These are complemented by extracts from the text presented as neo-realistic accounts of what life in Manchester was like at that time. The family move from Moss Side toAshton-under-Lyne becomes a mimetic reflection of the improvement in the economic fortunes of West Indian families following the urban redevelopment of the 1960s. As such, the site reads FEA as a mildly nostalgic – but alternative – backward gaze into the world otherwise epitomized by “Coronation Street” with its powerful, enduring overtones of Northern working class heritage. Educational worksheets for use in schools accompany the extracts and the photographs. Evidently, FEA now stands as a locally authorized, authentic representation of cultural change in Manchester. This process can only be welcomed as a powerful model of literature’s potential to articulate local social history. By creating another intertextual layer to the original text, it lends striking retrospective agency to the act of creative writing. It is perhaps inevitable, however, that the official municipal representations of Pemberton’s novel should emphasize its neo-realistic properties rather than its symbolic character as a literary work. Notwithstanding its beneficial outcomes, such cultural reappropriation is consistent with a wider tendency especially on the part of metropolitan high culture to read black literary and artistic productions as primarily documentary, rather than as aesthetically experimental.[24] The risk this process entails is to relegate FEA to the past. Such an appropriation misses what are perhaps the novel’s finest literary qualities: the imaginary fusion of past and present which defines displacement and offers an alternative view of history.




[1] See, for example, Karlheinz Stierle, Petrarcas Landschaften: Zur Geschichte ästhetischer Landsschafterfahrung (Krefeld: Scherpe Verlag, 1979) and Der Mythos von Paris: Zeichen und Bewusstsein der Stadt (Munich: C. Hanser, 1993) ; David Lowenthal, The past is a foreign country (New York : Cambridge University Press, 1985) ; and John Urry, The Tourist Gaze (London: Sage, 2002).

[2] R. Jakobson, “Linguistics and Poetics” in Style in Language edited by T. Seveok (Cambridge Mass: MIT Press, 1960) 350-377.

[3] Seán McLoughlin, “Writing a BrAsian City. ‘Race,’ culture and religion in accounts of postcolonial Bradford” in A Postcolonial People: South Asians in Britain, edited by S. H. Sayyid, N. Ali, and V. Kalra (London: Hurst, 2006);  Graham Mort, “The Reflexive Muse: Online Creative Writing Development in Africa and the UK Academy,” The International Journal of the Arts in Society, 1:1, 2006.

[4] Joe Pemberton, For Ever and Ever Amen (London: Review, 2000). Henceforth cited as FEA.

[5] Marianne Hirsch, Family Frames: photography, narration and postmemory. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1997.

[6] Gayatari Gopindath, “Rethinking space and sexuality in transnational times,” Unpublished paper (“Queer Diasporas”: Migration and Diaspora Cultural Studies Network at Manchester University, 25thMay 2007)

[7] Annette Kuhn, Family Secrets: Acts of Memory and Imagination (London: Verso, 1995); henceforth cited as FS.

[8] Humphrey Jennings, Listen to Britain (1942 documentary, 20 minutes: Crown Film Unit).

[9] Henri Lefebvre, La Production de l’Espace (Paris: Anthropos, 1974), 118.

[10] Lefebvre, La Production de l’Espace.

[11] Doreen Massey, For space (London: Sage, 2005).

[12] As Heidegger expresses it in Being and Time, “Dasein is an entity which is in each case I myself; itsBeing is in each case mine.  This definition indicates an ontologically constitutive state, but it does no more than indicate it […]. The “who” is what maintains itself as something identical throughout changes in its Experiences and ways of behaviour, and which relates itself to this changing multiplicity in so doing” (transl. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson [Oxford: Blackwell, 1965], 150). This definition suggests repeated and more or less voluntary acts on the part of us as individuals reacting to our environments (physical and social). Despite variation in their successive iterations, these acts define our identities.

[13] Following David Harvey’s The Condition of Postmodernity: an enquiry into the origins of cultural change (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989), and Anthony Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the late modern Age (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991), Scott Lash and John Urry in their Economies of Signs & Space (London: Sage, 1994) associate this process primarily with the development of “post-modernity”: the simultaneity of impressions and the quest for immediacy emanating from the pace of post-industrial society.  While this may well be a key aspect of the modern world generally and certainly, as we seek to demonstrate, defines FEA as a postmodern novel, we are primarily concerned here with associating space-time compression with the experience of migration and resettlement. See also Doreen Massey, For space (London: Sage, 2005).

[14] W. G. Sebald, Austerlitz (London: Penguin, 2001); henceforth cited as A.

[15] The eponymous main character, Jacques Austerlitz, an architectural historian who participated as a child in the Kindertransport, has been brought up by foster parents in Wales with no knowledge of his original provenance.  It is only in his 60s, following his retirement due to ill-health, that he fortuitously discovers his true origins as the only child of Czech Jewish parents who, it appears, have both perished in the Holocaust.  He tells his life story to the narrator – a first person alter ego of the author himself –  in a series of meetings spread over a 30 year period in which Austerlitz reflects on the events of history, their link with his own remembered past and the lessons which can be drawn from such investigation.

[16] Our italics.

[17] “This is my Moss Side: Interview with Joe Pemberton,” The Manchester Evening News, 13th October 2001, 12.

[18] Cf. Corinne Fowler and Lynne Pearce, “Moving Manchester: Relocating Diaspora Research,”International Journal of the Humanities 4 (Melbourne: Common Ground, 2006), 5.

[20] Roger Rouse, “Mexican Migration and the Social Space of Postmodernism,” Diaspora: a journal of transnational studies 1: 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 12.

[21] In his essay “Charles Walters: West Indian Autolycus,” Roger Abrahams notes that, on Easter Monday 1950, an estimated crowd of 3,000 gathered for a dance on Brimstone Hill. When rain started to fall, there was a stampede and ten revellers died while eleven were injured in the crush. Of interest here is the way in which Pemberton’s historical “rewrite” reflects a range of explanations for the crowd’s reaction to the rain and its subsequent consequences. Part of Vernice’s story (that they were protecting their hair) is borne out by the local newspaper’s account of the event. However, there is no evidence that the casualties resulted from their being pushed off the cliff. Rather, this appears to have been the outcome of two groups converging in the narrow meeting place of two streets (cit. Abrahams, 1968). Aunty Mary’s more “down to earth” reaction deliberately sheds doubt on Vernice’s version of events.

[22] Guillermo Gómez-Peña, “The New Global Culture: Somewhere Between Corporate Multiculturalism and the Mainstream Bizarre (A Border Perspective),” The Drama Review 45: 1 (2001) 7-30.

[23] Roger Rouse’s ethnographic essay “Mexican Migration and the Social Space of Postmodernism” asserts the need for “historically grounded reconfigurations of ethnographic spaces” of which FEA stands as a cogent example.  Rouse proposes “a new cartography of social space” that takes account of “transnational migrant circuits and reconceptualized border zones” (Diaspora: a journal of transnational studies 1: 1 [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991],  1). His dual-site ethnography of Mexican migrants from Aguililla, Michonacán and their place of settlement, Redwood City, contradicts the prevalent assumption of a “unidirectional shift” whereby migrants “move between distinct, spatially demarcated communities and, in the long run, are capable of maintaining an involvement in only one of them” (“Mexican Migration,” 12).

[24] Loren Kruger, “Apartheid on Display: South Africa Performs for New York” Diaspora: a journal of transnational migration 1:2 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 191.

Corinne Fowler is a postdoctoral researcher based at Lancaster University. She works on the AHRC-funded project Moving Manchester: how the experience of migration has informed creative writing in Manchester since 1960.
Robert Crawshaw is Senior Lecturer and Director of Research in the Department of European Languages and Cultures at Lancaster University. He is currently Associate Editor of Language and Intercultural Communication and is a founder member of the team running the Moving Manchester project

Layers of Time: Life, Death, Memory, January 2008