All Change

Well we’re at the end of March already, how did that happen? The last few months have been a bit of a whirlwind and now the dust is settling I find I’m living back in my home town with one of my best friends as a housemate. That I’m sharing a house with someone I’m not sleeping with after living by myself for 5 years is a massive shock to my system on its own, but the fact that I am back in Gravesend is an even bigger one as since I left (for the second time) in 2008 I’ve always been adamant that I would never end up living here again. So I’ve been complaining about it. A lot. To everybody. To the point where some of my friends (quite rightly) are sick of hearing about it, so I’m going to see if I can explain why I’m so upset about being back a bit better than I’ve been able to so far.

To start with, I think Gravesend is a toilet. There is nothing here. A walk through the town centre is a depressing experience with chav mothers screaming at their slack-jawed, dull-eyed, chimp children and shifty looking men in tracksuit bottoms drinking cans of cheap eastern European lager everywhere. Want to go shopping? You’ve got Debenhams, Marks and Spencers and Primark and that’s about it unless you don’t want to spend more than a pound, plenty of discount stores in between all the empty shops. The cinema was closed down and burnt out years ago. There are plenty of restaurants if you like Chinese or Indian, (to be fair, there are a couple of very good Indian and Chinese restaurants I have been going in for years) and if you’re a connoisseur of kebabs, pizza and fried chicken you are well covered but if you’re looking for anything  beyond that your choices are limited to a pasta restaurant, a couple of smart English places, or the new Polish place. Fancy Mexican or tapas? Keep going my friend. Even your Nando’s craving cannot be satisfied here. If you’re prepared to drive or shell out for a cab there are good places out in the surrounding villages, or you can go over to Bluewater but going to a restaurant in a shopping centre just doesn’t seem that sophisticated to me. About the only thing to do in Gravesend town centre is drink, and there are plenty of pubs to help you out with that but most of them are a bit rough and I’ve long been saying there are not many places I feel comfortable drinking in at the weekend and even fewer with people I want to talk to in.

Maybe I’ve been spoilt by the number of places to go that were on my doorstep in Beckenham and the fact that I was less than an hour away from everything else in London that I didn’t really have to think about getting there. It’s been pointed out to me that Gravesend is close to London as well, especially with the High Speed link and if you’re commuting it probably is but I’m not particularly convinced if you want to go into London for fun. It’s an hour on the normal train just to get into Charing Cross or around 20 minutes on the bullet train into King’s Cross St Pancras but it’s expensive, currently £15.10 for an off-peak travel card on the normal train or £19.10 for the high speed, that’s a big difference to the £7.70 I’m used to paying to get around on my Oyster card. It’s that bit too expensive to make going into London a spontaneous thing, now it has to be planned and budgeted for. Going into London for a mooch around Covent Garden or to spend an afternoon in Hyde Park seems kind of hard to justify and if you’re going for a night out your last train is just after midnight. Miss that and you are in for an expensive cab ride, no night bus, no alternative station that you can walk from, nothing. Just that last train. Compared to what I’m used to, Gravesend is not close to London.

Moving here has thrown a lot of other plans into the air as well. I spent most of last year looking for a new job and had been concentrating on stuff in London, the idea being that it would be nice and easy to get to and I’d be able to budget properly, maybe even save money, as I knew exactly how much I’d be spending on travel each month rather than having to spend all my spare cash on petrol driving up and down the country, and being in the same place with the same people every day might kick start the London social life I’d lost. Now if I were to start working in London everything I’ve saved in rent would go on a season ticket and the idea I’ve moved back to Gravesend to be no better off is one I can’t stand to think about.

So I don’t really have a lot of love for G-Town, having originally moved away 12 years ago and being able to see how downhill it has gone in that time it doesn’t really feel like my home any more. But it’s not just the run-down shops or the distance from all the fun stuff in the capital, it’s a personal thing too. Being back feels like I’ve failed.

When I first moved out to Beckenham a big part of it was because all of my friends in Gravesend were coupled off, settled down and starting families, they were at a different stage of life and there didn’t seem to be much on offer to me if I stayed. Beckenham was a nice looking place, close to London and it was where the office for my new job was so it seemed a logical place to go. I’d been able to make a decent social circle for myself in other places I’d lived and I had no reason to think I wouldn’t be able to do the same thing again. Who knows, I might even find a proper girlfriend at some point and start thinking of settling down myself. To start with everything went pretty much to plan, I found myself a fun bunch of new friends (although they were all backpackers in Bayswater rather than Beckenham), there were some girls and I was thoroughly enjoying having a house to myself, but somewhere over the last couple of years it started falling apart. I was spending more and more time away for work, money was getting tighter and tighter as the rent and bills went up, and the Bayswater Bunch started to move on or go home. I suddenly found myself on my own a lot, unable to create a local social circle because I was either away too often or too skint to be able to do anything on a regular basis. When I got that email in December telling me the rent was going up again I knew I couldn’t do it any more and I was going to have to move, and there was a horrible inevitability that move was going to be back to Gravesend.

And so it turned out to be. I never expected to have to come back and it hurt, and it made me angry. It still hurts and I’m still angry. I’d gone out to find a life for myself on my own and I couldn’t do it, it unravelled on me and I couldn’t pull it back together. I failed. It feels like I’ve slinked back with my tail between my legs into the situation I was trying to get away from in the first place, except that the babies that were being born then are now starting school and I’m scared I’ve blown it. I’m scared I’m stuck in a place where I can’t see any options for the future and time is running short to find some, that I’m somewhere I can’t find what I’m looking for, and walking through that dying town centre every day is a constant reminder of that.

The only good thing about Gravesend, as far as I’m concerned, is it’s where most of my family and friends are. If they weren’t I would quite happily never set foot in the place again. I know there are worse places (Bradford springs instantly to mind, but I don’t want to live there either) but it’s the place I have issues with, everyone seems to have taken my complaints so personally. The only reason I ever came back at all was to see the people I know and love, and please believe me on this one folks, you are the only thing that makes living back here bearable. Right now I’m happy I can see and spend more time with everyone, so let’s enjoy it while we can. I’ll do my best to keep the whinging to a minimum and make the best of things but you’ll never convince me it’s a nice place to live. Sorry.

 

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Do What You Love

I’ve long been an advocate of “If you want to do something, go and do it”, I don’t have a lot of time for people who constantly wish their lives away or moan about circumstances but then don’t do anything to change them, when someone is telling me about how they’d love to go and do this or that my response is usually “So go and do it then”.

Over the summer I finally managed to do something I’ve wanted to do since I was a teenager: I ran with the bulls in Pamplona. It was the most incredible thing I’ve ever done and I was buzzing for about a month afterwards. Not just from the run itself but the atmosphere of the fiesta, the place and the people I met meant I came back on a massive high. And people noticed. I’d been pretty miserable for various reasons in the months before I went away but when I came back a lot of things I’d been unhappy about seemed less important somehow and friends commented on how I’d cheered up.

When I thought about it I realised something, I was happy because I’d done something I wanted to do, which led to the further thought that the reason I’d been unhappy before was that I was doing too many things I didn’t want to do. The logical conclusion was that to stay happy I should do more things that I wanted to do, so since I’ve been back I’ve signed up for a photography course which should get me a qualification come next June and a 2 day climbing course to get me back into doing that regularly.

But while I’ve been waiting for those to start I’ve started to feel the unhappiness of earlier in the year creeping back and then I stumbled across this, the Holstee Manifesto:

It struck a pretty big chord with me as it seemed to be the realisation I’d just had spelled out in front of me. ‘Do what you love’. At the moment that’s bullrunning, photography and climbing, I’ve got two of those covered and there’s a good chance I’ll be going back to Pamplona next year.

And then there’s ‘If you don’t like your job, quit’. Hmm, ‘If you don’t like your job, quit’.

Right now, I fucking hate my job.

Because of the amount of travel involved in my job, it affects pretty much every aspect of my life. It makes it very hard to do anything on a regular basis or make any kind of social plans during the week. I had to give up two hobbies completely and cut back my involvement in others to the point where I’m hardly involved anyway. This means I’m not doing things that make me happy. This makes me unhappy (not to mention the effect it has on my social and love lives).

‘If you don’t like your job, quit.’

Choices are easy. Everyone usually knows what they really want to do when faced with a choice, it’s the consequences that make choosing difficult. I could hand my notice in today and work out the four weeks and then have about a month to find something else before the money ran out and I couldn’t pay my rent. While handing my notice in would make me very happy, the consequences of doing so without having a new job in place stop me from doing it. It’s a close thing sometimes though.

I’ve never been much of a career-minded person, enjoying what I do has always been more important to me and if I could make a career out something I enjoy than that’s a bonus. In the past whenever I’ve stopped enjoying a job and it became ‘work’ I’ve moved on and it’s time to do so again. But what will I do instead? I’m not sure that matters, just as long as its something that I like doing and gives me time to do the other things I want to do that make me happy.

My Mum

I’ve been umm-ing and ahh-ing about this one for a long time now. Last year I wrote this about my dad turning 60 and it caused a bit of a stir amongst friends and family, it was supposed to be a gentle poke at the fact he was about to qualify for his bus pass but turned into an emotional and heartfelt tribute. This year, it was Mum’s turn to reach That Age and while I wanted to do something similar for her (even though she probably won’t thank me for splashing her age across the internet), I wasn’t sure I’d be able to match the tone I used before. I wrote about Dad while I was in a hotel room in Helsinki. It was a whim, spontaneous. I didn’t set out to get as emotional as I did, it just sort of… happened. It was organic. I’ve been worried that if I tried to do the same thing about Mum I wouldn’t be able to do her justice, that I wouldn’t be able to start in that same light-hearted way because it would feel forced and false. So how do I do it?

The only way I can think of is not to try. I didn’t think about any of the stuff I said about Dad first so I need to talk about Mum in a different way. If Dad is my hero then Mum is my base. Mum is where I come from, literally and figuratively. She’s the one I get my values from, why I always check behind me when I go through a door so I don’t let is close on someone, why I don’t put my elbows on the table while I’m eating and why I still say “Thank you for having me” when I stay at someone’s house. She was the one who taught me ‘Please and thank you cost nothing and hurt no-one’.

But that’s not the only thing she taught me, while Dad is what I aspire to be as a good man, Mum is everything I try to be as a good person. Kind and generous, tolerant and patient, gentle and dignified. I’ve never known her to close the door on anyone, it doesn’t matter who you are, what colour your skin, your sexual preference or any of the other million things people get worked up about, as long as you’re not doing anything that hurts other people you’re welcome. When me and my sister were teenagers our house was always the one that was full of people on a Sunday morning after a Saturday night out and Mum would make every single one of them a cuppa and a bacon sandwich, she was part of the gang too and the reason our house was the cool house. Whenever friends have needed somewhere to go Mum has offered to put them up without us having to ask if it was possible, almost before we’d thought of it ourselves sometimes. It makes me very proud to know that and it’s how I try to treat other people, if I treat someone badly it’s always the image of her giving me the tight-lipped shake of the head and deep inward sigh she does when she’s disappointed that tells me I’m in the wrong.

It’s from Mum I get my artistic side and patience. Looking back to when I was little she always helped with art and craft type projects from school, I remember her making a shoebox replica of my bedroom once which must have been a nightmare as it involved putting in a false cardboard wall on one side to allow for the alcove my Tom and Jerry poster was in. These days Mum’s hobby is building dolls’ houses and the attention to detail she puts in to them is incredible. Several rooms in one house have patterned wooden floor tiles in them and Mum cut I don’t know how many lollipop sticks to size and shape and put each tile in by hand. My dedication isn’t quite up to that but she showed me the patience that sees me sitting down for hours at a time with a pile of paper and an origami book folding elephants, rabbits, giraffes and intersecting cubes. I take pride in a clean fold but my talent is far outweighed by hers and she continually outdoes herself but it gives me something to aim for.

Dad might be the one I go to for advice but when it all goes horribly wrong Mum is the one I go to for help and she is always there for me. Always. I am who I am because of her and it will always be her who guides me through my life. Thank you Mum. I love you too.

A Poor Showing

I have been remiss haven’t I? With all my grand intentions of posting at least once a week through 2011 I got as far as the end of February before it fell apart and I haven’t put anything up, not even a bad joke, since October. Not that I’ve really been up to much since the start of October except going to New Zealand and working. I do need to do a post (or possibly several) on NZ but I’m going to blame work for my apathy towards this blog and pretty much everything else really. Over the last couple of months I’ve realised that my job makes me miserable and that it has been doing so for some time as it has started to control pretty much every aspect of my life, so I have decided to do something about it. Yes, the search for a new job has begun. Wish me luck…

(Posts about NZ and the new picture eagle-eyed readers will have spotted in the top-left corner of the home page will follow soon)

Digital Crossover

We had a record month for our company over the summer and as a thank you we were all given Amazon Kindles, (I think most of us would have preferred our first payrise in three years but that’s beside the point) . I wasn’t too displeased though as I’m a pretty avid reader and I had been toying with the idea of asking for one for Christmas. So after playing with it for a little while I can confirm it’s a good bit of kit. It’s about the same size as a standard paperback but a lot lighter so it’s almost easier to read than a real book. Downloading content is no harder than searching the normal Amazon website with the added bonus that you don’t have to wait for the postman and it will certainly be easier to carry on my my upcoming trip to New Zealand than the four or five separate books I would probably take if I didn’t have it.

But therein lies the problem. I’ve got a long list of books I’d like to put on it but for some reason my finger keeps hovering over the ‘Buy’ button. It’s not a question of money, generally the ebooks are a few quid cheaper than their paperback counterparts but something more tangible. I like having a physical book in my hands. I like having shelves full of books to look at and choose from. In bookshops I take great pleasure in standing with my head at an odd angle reading along the spines of books waiting for a title or author to jump out at me and I just don’t get the same satisfaction from scrolling down a screen.

It’s the same with music and films. I had an MP3 player for a long time before I got an iPhone and I’ve had an iPhone since they came out but I have relatively few downloaded albums. I like having piles of CDs on my shelves, being able to touch them and read the sleeve notes, the lyrics and the thankyous. I have no downloaded films at all, preferring to be able to see all of the DVDs and Blu-Rays I have in one go rather than go through a list of file names.

This reluctance to embrace digital content has struck me as a bit strange, especially given that I work in IT. I can see the advantage of on-demand content. You see something, you want it, you get it. Instant gratification for the consumer and easy money for the providers. But something in this system grates on me, you don’t get anything physical out of the transaction, nothing you can put anywhere. We talk about having music collections, DVD collections and, to me anyway, a collection is something you should be able to show off and share with people. It loses something when you break that down to how many terabytes your external hard drive needs to have to hold all your films and music. 

The other thing that worries me about  digital content is what happens when you lose it? Just recently the laptop that held my iTunes library died and I lost all of my music. Not such a big deal for me as I had a back up and I’ve never got round to transferring all of my CDs so it’s not a huge amount of data but it still took the best part of an afternoon to restore everything to a different computer. If I didn’t have a backup I would have had to re-download everything I’d bought from iTunes and re-rip all my CDs, again not hard but time-consuming. I’m not sure I like the ‘all or nothing’ nature of digital collections, if you lost a walkman you only lost the one tape or CD that was with it, everything else was still safely back at home but if your music computer dies and you don’t have a back up you’ve got a lot of work ahead of you to get everything back. Especially if you were not altogether honest about where you were sourcing your music from…

It’s the same with books. I’ve left a book in a hotel and yes it’s irritating but it was just one book, it was easy to replace. But if I lost my Kindle somwhere that would be a different story, I’d be looking at around £100 to get my book back rather than a tenner. And what if you’re reading your ebooks on an iPad and that slips out of your bag unnoticed? 

I’m not against digital content, far from it. I love being able to type a snatch of a lyric I’ve heard in the morning into Google, find the band name, go to somewhere like Spotify or Last.fm and be listening to their stuff in a matter of minutes and then being able to browse through a list of similar artists and discover even more new music. I still go and buy the CD if I like it enough rather than download it there and then though.

I think it might be because I’m from the digital crossover generation. I was 23 when we first got an internet connection at home. A whole 56k of dial-up access! I remember being impressed the first time I saw a billboard for ‘super fast’ 1/2 Meg Broadband and scoffing at the idea that any office could ever be truly ‘paperless’. The idea that you’d never need to hold a paper file in your hands seemed a long way off to me and I could never imagine someone actually preferring looking at a display to get information rather than flick through some pages. But now we have people at university for whom there has always been an internet, for whom information has always been easier to find online than hunting through several different reference books like I used to do. They’re used to looking at screens and displays because that’s the way they’ve always done it. Their music has always been virtual as they probably got given iPods as presents rather than the tapedecks or CD players I got and now you can read documents on handheld devices as easily as if you were reading a piece of paper. 

It’s fine, I get it, times move on. I just happen to be stuck between the two. I will use the Kindle the same way I use iTunes and Spotify I suspect, find an author I like by downloading samples or cheap ebooks and then going out to buy the rest of their work in physical form, just so I’ve got something to fill up the two new bookshelves I bought a few months back.

After all, where’s the fun in looking at a shelf with a whirring black box on it?

A Poem, Piled

I’ve pinched this from Me and My Big Mouth, he put it on Twitter this morning and I thought it looked fun.

The idea is to create a poem from the titles of books on your shelves and then take a picture of the books to illustrate it. Here’s my humble effort:

ONE DAY
MR NICE,
LEONARDO DA VINCI
and I will walk the STRANGE HIGHWAYS
to ABSURDISTAN.

We want to be there when CARTER BEATS THE DEVIL
and so ushers in a BRAVE NEW WORLD.

Will you JOIN ME
UNDER THE DOME?

But, be wary of staying too long. FOR ONE MORE DAY
may well become A YEAR IN THE MERDE
and we will wish we’d stayed AT HOME

 

Let me know if you decide to have a go as well 🙂

 

The Old Man

It’s my Dad’s birthday on Thursday. He’ll be 60. Bloody hell. (I imagine he said something similar when I, and then my sister, turned 30)

I’ve never thought of my old man as actually being ‘old’. Over the past month or so me, my sister and my mum have been trying to organise a surprise party for him and I’m still struggling to get my head round the fact it’s going to be a big piss-up for a 60-year-old. Mum’s whisking him away to London for a few days, then we’ve organised a barbecue, the garden will be covered by a huge marquee with a dance floor and digital jukebox, there should be close to 100 people turning up and by all accounts there is a mountain of booze piling up in my sister’s garage so it should be a great afternoon and when I think back, it’s just not how I’ve ever imagined a 60th birthday party would be. Say 60th birthday party to me and it still conjures up images of an awkward family meal in a Beefeater somewhere. The last big party we had for Dad was his 40th. I was 13 at the time and don’t really remember a lot about it apart from there being a lot of people I didn’t know in the house and late in the evening I got woken up by a commotion which turned out to be a stripper. All I remember about her is seeing that she was dressed in stockings and a basque which is all I saw from the top of the stairs before she disappeared into the living room. I’m not expecting there to be a stripper at this party but I am expecting it to involve a similar amount of revelry and, in my head anyway, it’s just not something that connects with someone about to receive a bus pass.

Maybe that’s a reflection on me more than him though, he has a habit of making me feel old. Like when I was just about to turn 25, he phoned me early one morning to tell me that he and Mum had made me and my sister executors to their will. Thanks for the reminder of my own mortality Dad, right when I’m trying to deal with the fact I’ve been around for a quarter of a century. This was closely followed by the realisation that by the time my Dad turned 25 he was 8 years into his career and had a wife, a mortgage and me, whereas I was in a job solely for the meagre beer money it provided, had no girlfriend and was sharing a rented flat. I felt a little inadequate in comparison. Then he retired. How did that happen? My Dad! Retired!! How could my Dad be retiring when I was only 32!? Sure I knew other people whose parents were retired but they seemed… old. Or at least older. My Dad couldn’t possibly be old enough to retire, could he? But he did. Which meant I was old enough to have a Dad who was retired. Bloody hell.

Luckily I can forgive him these few incidents as we’ve always been mates. I’m still one of the few people I know who regularly has a drink with his Dad (or even with his parents, Mum is usually there too) and it’s always like going out with one of my mates rather than my Dad, we have a laugh and make fun of each other, we get into competitions over who can come up with the most puns and we have fun. Because of this I think most of my close friends  and my sister’s friends consider my Dad one of their mates as well, certainly most of them will be at the party (by the way, if any of you are reading this and think he should know about what I’ve written, keep it quiet until after the weekend, eh? ;op) and no-one’s ever had any problems coming to meet me if I’m with him or joining us for a round of golf or something. He’s always welcomed friends in and so has become one of the gang.

If it hasn’t become clear by now, my Dad is my hero. In terms of someone I look up to, aspire to be like and fear disappointing, my Dad is that person. He taught me to be honest and polite, to respect others but to speak up when I thought something was wrong, to be strong and independent but not too proud to ask for help. He showed me how to tell jokes and stories so people would laugh and how farting could be funny. He’s where I get my love for dingy pubs and Chas ‘n’ Dave from. He’s still given me the best business advice I’ve heard, “If you can’t blind them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit” and I use it on a regular basis. Whenever I don’t stick to one his lessons or advice I always feel vaguely guilty, like I’ve let him down. Needless to say, I don’t like doing that.

He is everything I have to come to regard as what a good man should be, able to walk into a room full of people and be greeted with a genuine smile by almost everybody and genuinely missed when he is not around but always modest. I’m very lucky that I’ve always had him supporting me, even with some of the more dubious decisions I’ve made. “We just want you to be happy” he’d say, and he’d still be there when those decisions came back to bite me on the arse, as I’m sure he knew they would. He’s the one I still want to be proud of me and the one I go to if I don’t know what to do about something. If as many people come to my retirement party as showed up at his, and show the kind of love, respect and affection as they did to him then I ‘ll be amazed. Something else he always used to tell me was “By the time you’re big enough you’ll be too old” and I suspect he’s right, I’ll never see myself as big a man as him.

Happy birthday Dad. I love you.