Blackpool-born Anne Worthington has spent decades producing a body of photographic work that highlighted the conditions of housing, and the effects of social and economic change that began during the 1980s, with particular focus on her adopted home of Manchester. She tells Josie Hindle that writing allows her to expand on the themes of her work, and why she returned to Blackpool for inspiration.

Tom Pullan knows that the people who visit him are trying to tell him something, but he cannot remember what. He knows the faces in his memory, the ones he loved, are not the ones around him now.

We are drawn into a world where brutal events from the past lie just below the surface. Plunged inside the characters’ heads, we experience their thoughts and feelings: sorrow and rage they cannot share; the intense feelings and turbulent sexuality of a teenage girl; a boy who saw something that casts a long shadow over his life.

What do we do with a lifetime of unheard truths, questions and fears? The Unheard is a
novel about memory, and what happens to the experiences that are too much for us but we
are unable to leave behind.

How did your hometown of Blackpool informed The Unheard?

In several ways, I think. The most obvious was being able to visualise roads and streets I would have walked down when I lived there. There are phrases in the book that are from the area, things I heard growing up, the way people talk and think.

It has to be said that there isn’t much physical detail about Blackpool and the surrounding area in the book. You’ll know after a while the place is northern, by the sea, and it has the kind of nightlife that you’d find here. It’s more about the area as a psychological and social space. Such as the way the area used to be culturally Conservative. I was amazed that most people voted Tory when I lived there. At home, we didn’t, and I was surprised to find that I saw the world in a vastly different way to most people I knew. The main character in The Unheard experiences the same thing, mainly in a good-natured way, but it adds to his sense of isolation. It’s one reason why he feels out of place even though he was born and brought up in the area. It’s striking that you can live somewhere all your life and feel like you don’t belong.

Another aspect that informed the novel were the experiences of the girl. Experiences with men and cars and how quickly this becomes part of her life at that point, and how she gauges herself by the attention she gets from men she meets in ad hoc situations that she’ll probably never see again. Yet she tries to maintain some sense of control over her situation. I always thought she’d made a decision to follow her desires and her will so she wouldn’t become stuck like the adults around her. And that’s the magnificent and complicated thing about her. They’re not my experiences, they’re what I saw and heard as a teenager. There were no words for it at the time, but the girls involved took it as a badge of honour that they had been ‘chosen’ by older men. Of course, it isn’t specific to Blackpool or the surrounding areas. We’re only really speaking about what’s happens to young people now.

Documentary photo by Anne Worthington
What did writing the book help you discover about your own life and history?

I discovered the world my father lived in. The writing veered away from what actually happened, as fiction has a habit of doing, but writing made me live in his world, and gave me a sense of the atmosphere in the house where he grew up. And some of what’s in the novel is what his family experienced although even that changed in the writing. It helped make sense of my dad, what happened to him and how it affected him. I suppose I felt affected by him and what happened to him because parents affect their sons and daughters.

I didn’t know where the writing about the girl was coming from at the time. I didn’t know who the girl was for a good while. It was a voice that kept appearing and was very alive, and it was right for the book although I couldn’t say why. Much later on, I was talking to someone I’d known at school, who was talking about those times, and what some older men were like with much younger girls. I had a sudden recognition, and because of the time away and how much time had gone past, it wasn’t in my awareness much, but had left an impression.

You say the voices in the novel are the ones you heard growing up. Can you expand on this?
Book cover with photography by the author

The different voices of Tom as he ages are voices based on my dad. He was in WWII and used to sing You Are My Sunshine around the house, which you’ll find Tom doing in the book. There are phrases he made up when he had dementia, like ‘treasure houses’ when he meant care homes, things he’d say when he couldn’t find the words. He was a much older father and used Victorian words like gamp instead of umbrella, and army slang, which is also in the book, and some Sandgrownun words – the old dialect from Blackpool and further along the coast.

The voice of May is based on women I knew as I grew up, including my mum, and the voice of the girl, Maggie, is a voice based on no one in particular, although it has bits of my thinking from when I was younger, girls I knew then, and girls I’ve come across since. Her voice is all impulse, immediacy, desire and will, and the confusion that arises when the world reflects you back in a distorted way.

So May and Tom are partly based on my parents and yet they’re not. Writing has a habit of changing people when they become characters. Some of the essence of Tom is very much like my dad, but I’m doing a lot of guessing when I go into characters’ heads and come up with thoughts on their behalf.

As a documentary photographer you have has produced a body of work that has highlighted the conditions of housing, and the effects of social and economic change that began during the 1980s. How did your photography inform the novel and does addressing these concerns through fiction provide a different result to documenting them photographically?

I’ve met a lot of people as a documentary photographer and I get to see and hear about the pressures on them, and how these forces or pressures play out over the course of a life. A photograph doesn’t usually do this justice whereas writing can. As a writer, I can expand it in so many directions. I try to show what happens when we’re caught between two worlds that grind up against each other, and what that can do to a person. If that sounds like doom and gloom, it’s not meant to, because that’s where the heroism comes from – the things people do under pressure, or despite the pressures on them. It’s fascinating how we behave when we’re under pressure, or what happens when an experience we couldn’t understand won’t leave us.

Was it research or personal experience that allowed you to write a first person account of dementia and does the dementia in the story allow an exploration of the fallibility of memory in general?

My dad had dementia and I can remember the way he spoke at that time in his life, and how he became less trusting, while at the same time, he forgot or maybe let go of some of his old fears. He would see things sometimes, people that weren’t there. I was in my twenties and didn’t understand at first. I was losing my dad gradually, whereas I could see these were rapid losses for him because of what he was losing physically as well as mentally, having to cope with it at much closer quarters than I was.

Using first person came naturally – I wanted to close the gap between the reader and the characters so the reader gets to know their internal world.

Starting a book with a section where the main character has these slippages of memory will frame the writing that follows for some readers, and memory and its fallibility is one of the book’s themes. But I wrote it this way for more simple reasons as well. But yes, I was writing about memory, and the main character, Tom, can’t seem to escape his memories and their effects. In the first section, I wanted to show some of the events that had affected the main character the most. They’re introduced without much context, and throughout the book the context becomes clearer and sharper until we’re taken directly to the point he’s been talking about throughout the book.

The book features a repetition of certain phrases. Did you have these in mind when you began writing and what purpose do they serve?

Phrases came along as I wrote. I was looking for ways of creating a code with the reader where I would establish a meaning and repeat it elsewhere in the book, and the reader would be in on it, and would know what it meant without needing all the extra words to explain. The phrases also link parts of the book together that were separated by many pages. They make the writing rhythmic. I like writing to be physical in the way that music is. I like writing to affect me, to get under my skin and leave something behind afterwards. Again, much like music does.

I also repeat phrases to convey anxiety, fear and anger. Repeating a phrase mirrors that repetition in our thinking and our emotions. I do it when characters are ranting to themselves, they rant and repeat these phrases until the phrases and their feelings are spent and dead.

Certain cultural and political events that may be recognisable to readers are included in the book. What creative license did keeping them non-specific give you?

I like readers to recognise what’s going on without being told. And I like that feeling of something opening itself up through for a reader because they know what’s being referred to. And I wrote it that way so as to be more true to the way we speak to each other and how we think. No one explains who the prime minister is if they see them on TV, or a national event that’s on TV every day, so I kept it more like conversation and thought.

I also like creating gaps and ellipses that readers fill in for themselves. I don’t underestimate readers’ ability to know what’s going on, and fill in gaps with their own interpretations. I think it’s one way we get to enjoy art or books and films.

Does Blackpool have a nostalgia complex?

I hear people say how much they love Blackpool, how they love to visit, that they’ve been every year since they were young, and I see them thinking about their good memories as they talk. When I worked in Blackpool, I met people who’d come to live there because they’d only ever had good times on holiday and wanted to get away from the situation they were in where good times seemed impossible. This is surely all about nostalgia at work.

Perhaps Blackpool itself is affected by the way people think about it, people coming to visit and wanting it to be a certain way, wanting certain things from it and not wanting that to change. It seems like a strange thing to want when you take it apart and look at it.

The Unheard by Anne Worthington is out now, published by Confingo.

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    Antonia Charlesworth Stack is a journalist and editor from Blackpool. She was deputy editor of Big Issue North magazine and is editor of Blackpool Social Club. Antonia is also the founder of Reclaim Blackpool, a women's safety campaign that began life as an article she wrote for Blackpool Social Club. She's a contributing author to the Lancashire Stories anthology with her story about a Blackpool performer, The Call of The Sea. The book is available for free in libraries across the county.

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