Iwas made​ in the small industrial town of Bouillon, in the Belgian Ardennes, where my mother came from and most of the family still lives. One aunt and uncle lived opposite, another lived forty kilometres away on the Luxembourg border, and our cousins lived next door. My mother was the only one of her siblings or close relatives to leave, but when she did she went far enough away to make up for all their staying. Having met my father in Liège, where she was a student and he an English-language teaching assistant, she moved to England; they then embarked on what became a life of travel, uprooting and re-rooting every few years after he joined the British Council. They went to Congo (just after independence), then Tunisia (where I was born), then Venezuela, Turkey, Iran (during the revolution) and Romania (just before the revolution). My mother left Bouillon, but she always came back. We returned three times a year, and during the summer we’d stay for as long as three months, in ways that gave my sister and me the sense of being woven into the place, of having something so deep and so full that it felt like an extra life: not a holiday or vacation, but a different way of being ourselves, not least in French, because we always become someone different when we speak another language.

My parents retired to the suburbs of south-west London. Towards the end of her life, in Kingston Hospital, my mother said from her bed, with that mix of disorientation and clarity that hospital-strength drugs bring: ‘Je ne reverrai plus Bouillon.’ (‘I’ll never see Bouillon again.’) She did – she went back twice more, and for long stretches – but the way she said it, and what it implied, seemed so dark to us, and so final beyond any abstract notion of her death, which by then wasn’t abstract at all, that it felt as terminal as her diagnosis. As far as she was concerned, it was the diagnosis.

Bouillon teemed with cousins, great-aunts and great-uncles, not all of whom we knew. Our great-aunt Olga turned out to be running a café five hundred yards from our house. She and my grandfather, her brother, hadn’t spoken for decades, and any reconciliation would have been so disruptive it would have caused more problems than it solved. We were told that she had gone to become an exotic dancer in Paris in the 1930s and stayed there. What we didn’t know was that she had returned (if she ever went), and that she was in fact the kind but hard-as-nails woman behind the bar at the Café des Sports who smoked local Semois cigars. She died in the early 1990s, and the café has been for sale for so long that the estate agents keep having to replace the damp-sodden ‘à vendre’ signs. In the life beside this one, the one where I’m still in Bouillon, I’m running the Café des Sports, polishing the bar and drying the Stella glasses with the same cloth I use to wipe the ashtrays.

The café was bought, once, by a local hotelier, but he was killed in the terror attack on Maelbeek station in Brussels in 2016. We never thought, as children, of the way history touched on our small town. Yet we were surrounded by it: during the Second World War our grandparents’ house had been taken over by German officers, and they were sent away to work as agricultural labourers. They were lucky: our great-grandfather was killed in a German bombing raid in 1940, while the father of my cousin Guy was executed by the Gestapo, leaving behind a widow and three sons. Bouillon also produced Léon Degrelle, the founder of Belgium’s fascist Rexist movement, a man whom Hitler claimed he would have wanted for a son, and who died an unrepentant, even exultant, Nazi in Málaga in 1994. His long life in exile made him a magnet for the far right, and among his admiring visitors was Jean-Marie Le Pen, who called him ‘an extraordinary historical figure’. For his daughter’s wedding Degrelle wore full SS uniform, and every year, around his birthday on 15 June, Rex signs still appear around Bouillon, chalked onto walls or pavements. The older generation didn’t speak much about Degrelle, or the war, but when German tourists came past our house and asked the way to the castle, my grandfather would reply: ‘Même qu’en trente-neuf.’ (‘Same as in 1939.’) Elsewhere in town, a former café owner is reputed to have done terrible things as a mercenary in Africa in the 1960s, while the barber we went to as children claimed inside knowledge of Patrice Lumumba’s last days from his time as a member of the Belgian colonial police.

The Bouillon we grew up in was newly post-industrial: the factories had closed but people still kept the rhythms of work and the ecosystem of shops and businesses clung on. By the time I reached my twenties Bouillon’s shops were closing down and windows were being boarded up. There had been dozens of cafés and restaurants, five butchers’, half a dozen bakeries, shops selling workwear (overalls, aprons, boiler suits, chefs’ hats) and a co-operative supermarket. There was a whole stratum of businesses dedicated to mending things – from tailors’ and counters selling material, thread and bobbins to electrical shops that fixed TVs and washing machines. Although we were a long way from the coast we had a fishmonger, and even a ‘boucherie chevaline’ – a horsemeat butcher. Horsemeat was tough but cheap – and it went well minced in lasagne and Bolognese. When, a decade or so ago, there was a scandal about horsemeat being used to bulk out lasagnes in the UK, many of the older generation in Bouillon found it comforting that not so far away, people were still tucking into horse.

The restaurants sold chips in cornets from the back windows of their kitchens, where the chefs used the windowsill as a pop-up bar for locals who fancied a beer as they went about their errands. Most of these establishments were also people’s homes: they lived ‘above the shop’. At our butcher’s, the family’s lounge was on the other side of the chopping room where the cuts were prepared. At weekends and in the evenings, curtains were drawn and shutters pulled down over shop vitrines and the TV would come on, its blue fizz and muffled noises seeping out between the shutter slats or the gaps in the curtain lace. Flypaper encrusted with bluebottles twisted like bunting. As people left their shops, businesses were embalmed, coming to look like old film sets.

Thinking about being a child in a place like Bouillon – of which there exist so many equivalents in so many countries – I see how the grand narratives of post-industrial decline, with their emphasis on migration, property crashes and derelict industrial zones, are only one side of the experience – the outward signs, the computable data of it. My feeling, as I remember it, was that we were all still there: it was the place itself that was emigrating beneath our feet.

Now, as I walk from my house in Oxford to the hipster coffee shop on Magdalen Road, which has recently been rivalled by two more hipster coffee shops, a deli and a second sourdough bakery, I pass Silvesters, a hardware shop that has finally closed down after a hundred years on what was once a busy local shopping street on the Cowley/Oxford borderland. This once working-class area is now so gentrified that the old grocery shop, Best Buys, has recently become an upmarket children’s bookshop. The area is full of ghost frontages and ghost signs naming the old establishments, recuperated by gentrification into décor. Magdalen Road has begun to refer to itself as ‘the village’: at one end, two very smart pubs, a theatre and the high-end bakery/café zone; at the other, a car wash where global migration, exploitation and possibly modern slavery meets the world of mid-priced family saloons. In between there are Asian supermarkets, an exotic fish shop that functions as a free zoo, a disco-hire shop, a homeless shelter called the Porch, a Buddhist centre and a memorial mason’s. The sourdough delis, pubs and theatre are on the Iffley Road side, the car wash on the Cowley Road side, as if illustrating something about the road’s status as urban sliding scale between local and global, rich and poor, gentrification and the places gentrification doesn’t want to think about.

Gentrification has an eye for the folkloric elements of transformed neighbourhoods, their capacity for targeted nostalgia. Faded letters on the side of a house advertising Bile Beans, or the old font of a shop name, its lettering long gone but marked out in dirt and grease and exhaust fumes, remind us comfortingly of the past, though the prices inside are positively futuristic. They also give us the illusion of the local, and of our place in it. In any gentrified area, it’s the local that costs more: the honey from the Camden rooftop, the sausages from three miles away, the micro-brewed beer from Adlestrop. Gentrification sells you back the local it destroyed, but as a fetish object at fetish object prices.

There’s no money in Bouillon, though there is excellent bread (known, simply, as ‘bread’, the alternative being unimaginable), so the old shops and businesses get demolished, and the traces of what they were disappear. I’ve always been alert, in Oxford, to those small details that I can fix on that remind me of Bouillon – that sense of being caught in a local wedge between global forces. No one likes to think that their community – the cafés and the table beer, the factory social or the miners’ library – is dependent on money being moved around bank accounts two continents away. But the most local, essential, community-defining things I remember – the smells of the outhouse (rabbit-piss straw, tobacco, various kinds of turps), the sight of lathe oil under fingernails, blue overalls hanging on communal washing lines – were really the vanishing points of global forces. Even the local patois, French flecked with Walloon and often pronounced like Walloon (‘tais-toi’, which I heard a lot, became ‘taiche-teu’; ‘j’aime autant’, ‘djâme ostant’), was the result of generations of linguistic mixing and grafting, and of in-migration from other industrial areas of Belgium and France.

When, on Magdalen Road, Silvesters closed at last, Stuart, the owner and son of Bert and Gwen, from whom I bought most of the paint, crockery, polish and DIY kit for my first house in 1998, sold off the stock in a three-stage ‘Everything Must Go’ sale whose phases I find symbolic. First, there was just a sale, 25 per cent off, then 50 per cent. Phase two consisted of time slots where you’d pay £10 and get five minutes in the shop to take whatever you fancied, modulating, as the shelves became barer, into £5, for which you could also have the shelves themselves. Phase three I witnessed coming back from the pub one night: the skip rumbling as people climbed inside and picked it clean. The building is now going to be demolished and turned into flats.

Spending a lot of time in a place like Bouillon, I became attuned to the goingness of things – the second going, as it were, in ‘going, going, gone’. I noticed it everywhere, and felt as if I’d been given a nose for it by my childhood. That feeling was always connected to places and their details, but also to the way in which the places I remembered were defined by class, and by the mobility and barriers between the classes. This too connects Bouillon to Magdalen Road.

My grandmother was a dressmaker, a couturière. She was the best in town, and is still known, in the last of the tailors’ shops, as ‘la grande Lucie’. It was she who made the dresses and suits of many of Bouillon’s inhabitants, for a range of budgets: from neighbours or work colleagues to the sons and daughters of the factory owners. People said that her clothes were worn ‘même à Bruxelles’. My grandfather Eugène worked in the metal factory but retired early with emphysema and ailed at home, or in cafés or on his allotment. My sister and I were surrounded by very old people – women in their eighties and nineties, like my great-grandmother Julia and her sister, Eugénie – but it’s my grandfather who symbolises old age for me, even though he was only in his late fifties when I was a child. He died aged 66 when I was fourteen, my grandmother Lucie when I was in my early thirties, just before her first great-grandchild was born.

Lucie made clothes for the bourgeoisie, which gave her a class-crossing cachet. Many of her clients came to the house, but for the very rich, she paid house calls. She saw the inside of their mansions; she was the canary in their mines of luxury. She would describe what they were having for dinner that day, which cars were parked in their stables. One day she told us the factory owners were having a swimming pool built. The pool was a legend, and sometimes we’d hear the sound of the splashing carrying over the walls. We finally saw the pool in 2011, when we were invited to the house. Life had equalised us, or made me sufficiently peripheral to the hierarchies that it didn’t matter, now that I was an Oxford academic and I’d been interviewed in Le Soir. The old class divisions had been wiped out, as the structures of work and community disappeared, though the money that underpinned them remained. Soon, our children were regularly walking from my grandmother’s house up to ‘la grande maison’ to swim, play football or eat sweets in the house’s art nouveau orangery. That three-minute walk would have been unthinkable two generations ago.

I’d always thought, as an academic, about questions of class and class conflict as they presented themselves through organised labour and theories of collective action and identity. In Wales, where I have spent much of the last 25 years, I thought in terms of industrial and union action, which I recognised, in miniature, from Bouillon. Reading Raymond Williams at university in the 1980s and 1990s, I never heard in lectures that he was Welsh, or that his fictional writings were located – in all the senses of that word – in a time and place and culture. Williams’s novels, especially Border Country, are about déclassement of the sort we find in Tony Harrison’s poems or the autofiction of Édouard Louis and Annie Ernaux. While the larger, historical rupture between classes might take a generation or more to work itself out, there is always a rupture at the individual level, between people: parents and children, siblings, or, in my grandparents’ case, between husband and wife.

Lucie Nicolas (my grandmother kept her maiden name) was self-employed and independent. She would have been happy to be called petite bourgeoise – unlike her husband, who was resolutely classe ouvrière and had no truck with the hearth-crossing relationship with factory owners. When they dropped by with cloth they’d ordered from Paris, or for impromptu fittings, he would harrumph and slam doors, then go into the courtyard and hammer or drill something loudly. Lucie voted liberal, Eugène socialist. Their house was strictly demarcated between their spheres of activity, and staying there gave me a taste for borders and frontiers, not just between spaces but between eras and periods, and between futures – the future as it once looked and the future as it actually came.

Eugène’s sphere was the back of the house: the kitchen, where he preferred to eat, except on Sundays; and the adjacent outhouse, once the pigsty, where he kept his tools and his rabbits. He had a small, very fine knife, the blade so whetted it had gaps where the metal had become friable. He used it to slice saucisson, prune plants, gut fish and peel the skin off rabbits with such precision that it looked like he was simply disrobing them. The back door gave him access to a courtyard from which he could escape up the shared ruelle towards the castle, where there was a café called La Cabane because it was made of logs, and a rudimentary urinal known simply as ‘le pissodrome’, or down the alley to Le Polydanias, aka Chez Ghislaine, a café where he’d watch football or play cards.

My grandmother’s zone was the front of house: a front room, which was her workshop; a fitting room, or rather an understairs alcove with a curtain across it; and a corridor-cum-catwalk with a painting by the local art teacher (Guillaume Edeline, who became quite well known). In my father’s family in Wallsend on Tyne, the dynamic was the same: his father, Alfred, worked in the shipyards and died in his late fifties, and his mother, Edith, worked in the café at Fenwick in Newcastle city centre. My father’s father was a union man and staunchly Labour, his mother aspired to the petite bourgeoisie. I think of what my grandmother Lucie must have done to make such a success of herself: not just the work itself, skilled as it was, but the attendant knowledge she had to master to earn her living – the bookkeeping, the maths, the literacy both numerical and verbal. She radiated empowerment. My grandfather didn’t: marginal in both his domestic and professional spaces, he spoke little and wrote less, and wasn’t allowed (by her) to send us postcards because his spelling was too bad.

Lucie was busy, chatty, energetic. She would nip at my grandfather for being idle or smoking or (depending on whether she wanted him around or not) going drinking or not going drinking. His favourite café was owned by a man called Mr Hanus (you don’t pronounce the ‘h’) and it was known as ‘chez le Cul’ (‘the Arse’). Hanus’s widow is still alive and in a residential nursing home by the Semois river, where my cousin’s wife is the manager. Eugène would go ‘down the Arse’ to play cards and drink beer, and I’d be sent to fetch him. Every now and then he would explode with nuclear fury and everyone had to hide. He was slow to anger but devastating once riled; Lucie was quick to irritation but her moods passed like motorway lights.

The space between the zones of their house was a corridor of the sort academics call liminal: between two classes, two sets of politics, two relationships with work, with wealth and with the wealthy. He at the back, operating the machinery, clocking in and out and speaking patois, she at the front, making the nice things, the luxuries, talking in RTBF French (the equivalent of BBC English) and earning more than he did. It was her money that paid off the mortgage, built the extension, paved the shared courtyard and fitted the new kitchen. It was her money that bought the street’s first private telephone. She was in the ascendant, he was on the way down, deskilled, ill and weak. No wonder I look for them both on Magdalen Road.

My great-grandmother on Lucie’s side, Julia, was a chambermaid in one of Bouillon’s hotels, and her husband, Elie, was a gamekeeper for various landowners. Their side of the family were all employed in domestic labour, or in a version of the service industry. Lucie’s ability to take it to the next level, but also to the next class up, was both part of the trajectory and a break from it. The Lejeunes, my grandfather’s side, were all industrial workers and they socialised together at the many dances in a place known as ‘le casino’, a workers’ bar and ballroom with a bowling alley. I recognised these class dynamics in Oxford, though on a different scale, when I began as a college fellow. Many of the college staff – kitchen staff, porters, groundsmen – were often not only related, but part of several generations of college ‘servants’. I’d be served by a husband and wife, or a father and son. Those dynasties of college staff are now also Polish or Romanian. Somehow, none of the class dynamics I’d learned about in books worked for the way in which we interacted, or for the way they interacted with Oxford’s (already declining) car city in Cowley, just up the road from the ‘dreaming spires’.

The car factory once employed almost thirty thousand people. Today it’s a still impressive four thousand, not that you’d know from a walk around the city centre or a visit to Cowley Road. The main Morris site was demolished in 1993, in what was billed as ‘one of the largest land clearance projects in Western Europe’. I was two years into my time as a student in Oxford and too involved in my doctorate to pay attention to what was happening three miles away. Besides, I hadn’t yet become attuned to the ubiquity of Bouillon.

John Betjeman said that the car would change Oxford, and even in 1938, when he published An Oxford University Chest, the car seemed to be winning, edging out the university. Over the following decades car fumes altered the college façades, making them dark and gothic rather than honeyed stone. The cars needed more roads, the workers who built the cars needed places to live, and Betjeman feared the class politics all this entailed: as the factory grew, workers from across the country moved in, notably from South Wales, where they were politically literate, organised and radical enough to want unionisation, proper housing and decent pay. They also wanted to sing, and the Oxford Welsh Male Voice Choir, founded in 1928, is still going strong. The choir refused, on principle, sponsorship from the Morris factory where they worked, because their political activities were incompatible with taking company money. The Welsh workers are an important part of Oxford’s sidelined radical history, a history that includes Olive Gibbs, chair of CND and, in the 1970s, Oxford’s second woman lord mayor, and Abe Lazarus, the communist activist who led, among other defiances, the Pressed Steel Strike of 1934 and the rent strikes in Florence Park off Cowley Road, then known as ‘Little Rhondda’.

Betjeman was wrong: the university has won, though it’s a different beast from the one he knew, and it was never the cuddly, remote, unworldly sanctuary he imagined it to be anyway. The university and colleges build relentlessly – new student accommodation, technology and business parks – while the students have become cash cows: milked at one end by universities and at the other by private landlords. Meanwhile, Oxford’s working-class population has been pushed to the margins, either deliberately – with the demolition of St Ebbes and the relocation of its inhabitants to ring road-hugging peripheries – or semi-deliberately, through lack of affordable housing and planning that favours tourism and the service industry, and respects only the kind of history that comes pre-marinaded in medievalism. It doesn’t help that the colleges own so much of the land and buildings. Rents are staggeringly high, but how many ‘Official Campus Merchandise’ shops do tourists need?

Back in Bouillon, where all this began, we didn’t much notice the town’s beauty because it was our normality, though we certainly noticed the tourists who filled the town every weekend and throughout the summer. The old houses were bought as holiday homes, and people arrived from Brussels or Charleroi, Liège, Reims or even Paris, with cars pre-loaded with food and drink. After the two factories closed, the population went from about 8000 to 2500, and the place now depends mostly on tourism. The centre of gravity, and the power, now belonged to the petits commerces rather than the big employer. I watched the service industry take over from the industry, just as I watched my grandmother out-earn and then outlive my grandfather across the frontier in our house. The Usine Camion was once a proud industrial building beside the river, overlooked by the castle, and next door to an old convent and the Athénée Royal de Bouillon. It was shut down in 1970 and finally demolished in 1981 – not ‘for’ anything, but to create a decades long scrappy void of terrain vague. The various shops, cafés and restaurants that catered for a large working population either adapted to tourism or fell away.

Bouillon is a beautiful town. If anyone has heard of it outside Belgium and northern France (Bouillon figures in Didier Eribon’s Returning to Reims in a list of rare, short and unremarkable holidays), it’s thanks to Godfrey the Crusader, who captured Jerusalem in 1099. It’s far from clear that he ever set foot in Bouillon, but his castle still stands, magnificent, on a green rock. Five or so years ago, uncomfortable with the municipal banners and tourist literature celebrating the Crusades, the council rethought the branding in a more culturally sensitive mode. They settled on ‘Armed Pilgrimage’ – the kind of solution that makes you nostalgic for the problem.

Among the people who fought for the town to commemorate its industrial and class history is my mother’s cousin Guy Adam. It’s in part thanks to him that, once you’ve taken in the amazing views, drunk your Orval beer, gone kayaking, had a swim, eaten your moules-frites and seen the castle’s illuminations (introduced by Patrick Adam, Guy’s son and my oldest childhood companion), you can go and find out about the factory and its workers. The map showing the factory’s international exports gave me vertigo when I first saw it: it looked like the flight routes of a global airline, and I was dizzied by the thought of what we made in this tiny town, what my grandfather with his bad lungs and wet roll-ups had helped send out into the world. Also on show are the little metal snack boxes the workers carried, buckled to their belts, and which I remember because I had my own. They are now in glass cases – the same kind that house armed pilgrims’ sword handles and golden reliquaries.

Oxford’s industrial history has fared less well: the Museum of Oxford on St Aldate’s is the poor relation among Oxford’s galleries and museums, but it does a good job of telling visitors about ‘Town’ history: the car plant, the Windrush generation, the old shops and businesses. Up where the car plant used to be is a single stele, known as Nuffield’s Needle, shaped like the bonnet badge of a Morris Minor, in the middle of a roundabout on Garsington Road. It fulfils Robert Musil’s dictum that public monuments are ‘impregnated with something that repels attention, causing the eye to roll off like drops of water off an oilcloth’. It took me almost thirty years to notice it, and even then it was because I was thinking about Bouillon.

When I was nine, thanks to my parents’ peripateticism, I was sent to boarding school in England. My English at the time was rusty. I spent the summer of 1977 in Bouillon and my grandmother made me school clothes: two identical grey suits, some trousers and a blue blazer onto which the school crest had to be sewn. I felt like I was being measured for a coffin as she fitted me up and tucked and pinned the cloth around me. Lucie was a big fan of lining, saying that a good lining – a doublure – was as important as the outer garment. There was something intimate and personal about it – the part of the garment only you know, only you feel. She also liked turn-ups on trousers, and I was the best-dressed boy in boarding school (not the bonus it may sound like when you want to fit in). The French for ‘turn-up’ is revers – reversal, or inside-out. So many variations of doubleness and overlapping, inner and outer, spoken and unspoken, borders and their crossings, reversals and inversions. I now take my clothes to be altered to a shop on Cowley Road. The owners are Syrian, but I recognise my grandmother’s posture and her movements as they lean over their sewing machines. I recognise the rulers and the scissors, the chalk and the tracing paper, the smell of hot iron against cloth.

I thought I’d go back to Bouillon, that this English interlude was all temporary. Forty-seven years on I still think that. I still have the house, which I visit with my family and where I feel like its memory-janitor, a concierge to the ghosts of the people who made my childhood so happy and so dimensional that it rivals the life I’m living. My writing is mostly in English, and English has become how I express myself. I don’t feel as external to it as I used to, but that is a loss as much as a gain. In French I feel more than I can say, and in English I can say more than I feel. I’m still trying to find the lining, and in the life beside this one, I’m still in Bouillon. But in this life, I’m apologising to the ghosts twice over: first for having left, and second for never properly leaving.

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