By Nathan Choat
As students, we are sometimes guilty of getting caught up in our own university bubble. We inhabit lecture theatres and frequent college bars, but often overlook what can be found right on our doorsteps: the city of Durham, replete with beauty, riddled with history, and most of all, fortified by its people. As part of the opening line-up for this year’s virtual Durham Book Festival, Booker Prize-winning author DBC Pierre walks us through his connection to the city in a specially commissioned essay The Long Cascade, as well as an accompanying podcast, in conversation with Lee Brackstone. The result is a paean to Durham and the North, inviting us to meditate on questions of identity, connection, and rootedness.
DBC Pierre has lived a life of geographical diversity, born in Australia and spending time in the US, the South Pacific, and Mexico as a child. However, he maintains that it was his mother’s home of Durham where, with retrospect, he felt the most rooted. This was the site of his first memory, his baptism at Carville, and the place where he went to school for a fleeting but wonderful period of time. As a child, Pierre remarks, Durham was fairy tale-like, the one place that fulfilled the promise of visiting England more than any other.
Illustrating a cannon which he knows to be resting in the depths of the River Wear, Pierre uses it as an allegory for the anchored nature of Durham: anchored in place, anchored in people’s stories, and anchored above all in the identities of so many. There is something deeply reassuring about this. In a year when uncertainty has prevailed and even the format of Durham Book Festival has fallen prey to its whims, the places we are connected to and the stories we tell about ourselves remain timeless.
Aside from his connection to Durham as a place, Pierre is also keen to emphasise his rootedness in the humanity of Durham and its community. He enthuses about the “extraordinary temperature of human beings” that can be found here, the remarkable strength, humour, loyalty and wit that people possess. Pierre’s Durham is a close-knit community, where everyone has each other’s back – after all, he writes, “this was the North and you looked out for one another”.
Approaching this event from a student’s perspective, it was curious but refreshing to see an account of Durham where the University was not central, or even mentioned at all. It is a reminder of something obvious but oft-forgotten: namely, people’s interactions with place and time are personal, and no experience is universal. The city of Durham and its people, both past and present, have so many stories to tell, and we should do our best to seek them out. In an age when we are both so connected to each other but also so divided, this is more important than ever.
Indeed, during the podcast that accompanies his essay Pierre reflects on two very different types of connection: the authentic type that is rooted in a real place and real people, and the dangerously superficial variety that exists in the digital sphere. The sinister themes of Big Tech and data harvesting lie at the heart of his new book, Meanwhile in Dopamine City, released earlier this year during a lockdown that saw the shares of companies like Facebook and Google soar in value. As Pierre explains, Big Tech and the growth of surveillance capitalism dehumanises us, making us forget how to embrace a sense of mystery. Once tech companies own our data we are no longer consumers, but products.Perhaps, then, The Long Cascade can be read as a cautionary tale: champion humanity, or we will succumb to an ominous agenda. By reminding ourselves of our connections and our roots, we succeed in laying claim to our own stories.
Image: Anna Kuptsova