Joe Pemberton

forever and ever amen

Magical Realism

City Life. 9th February 2000 Invincible Cities Ra Page talks to Joe Pemberton about his Moss Side. As Kublai Khan contemplated his decaying empire, in Italo Calvino's Invincible Cities, the inevitable decay of all the empires and all the cities assured him there could be a municipal "pattern so subtle it could escape the termites' gnawing." That man was Marco Polo, and the invincible cities he described for the emperor were, in fact, imaginary projections of just one place, his hometown Venice. The real Venice will eventually sink into the Mediterranean, of course, just as James Joyce's Dublin will slide into the Liffy. But once fictionalised they acquire a kind of eternity the way the settings of one's childhood grow bigger and sturdier in the memory of than they actually are. Though it's a far cry from Calvino's Venice, the immortalised setting behind Joe Pemberton's first book - Moss Side in the late ‘60s - haunts its author almost as vividly. Forever and Ever, Amen (Matador, £6.99) is set mostly on Cadogen Street (sandwiched between Moss Lane East and Great Western Street) follows the real and imagined experiences of nine-year-old James (read Pemberton) in the weeks running up to his family's move to Ashton-under-Lyne. Veering between the publicly enacted domestics of his neighbours and James's continual daydreaming and plane-crashes, doomed ships and his dead Aunt Mary, the wayward narrative propels the reader at a remarkable speed for a novel in which, ostensibly, nothing happens. Snippets of dialogue, fragments of show tunes, crumbs of gossip and chippings off other people's memory all mix into the mortar of James' misunderstanding, transforming imperceptibly into clues about the real history of his family and community. "Moss Side must be the most written about urban area in Britain," Pemberton reflects. "Yet it's only ever written about by and for easily frightened outsiders. It's such a boldly defined place in these people's imagination, yet that image has never been the one I have of it." Pemberton's image, he acknowledges, might well be exclusive to his particular memory. Indeed Andrea Ashworth's portrait of exactly the same area could almost be a different city. But this novel isn't about mapping the area for the record books, a la Fredrich Engel's quantity-surveying the back streets of Hulme; it's about keeping the place alive, a la Marco Polo recreating Venice. "I could never go back to Cadogen Street," Pemberton confesses. "It's not a matter of choice. I just couldn't. It would be like going back to my primary school. I did once revisit a church hall we use to use for Youth Club, and the whole experience was quite disturbing. Just the sight of a table I remembered - how small it was, compared to how big it was then - practically moved me to tears." Asking Pemberton about the origins of his writing style has almost the same effect: he doesn't want to go there. What is clear though is that, just as his influences are entangled in his parental West Indian heritage, many are knotted up in his Manchester one. The extended fantasising owes much to Pemberton's sometime creative writing tutor, Richard Francis, while the hushed, awe-struck gossip can arguably be traced to Livi Michael - another writer whose family left South Manchester with a memory-sealed mythology of the place. Ultimately it is this entanglement that acts as the basis for the novel's intrigue; the mass of jumbled clews that makes up a child's understanding.  

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