I caught her eye from across the room. It was glass and she’d suffered a violent sneezing fit. It was the start of something… unique.
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.
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?
Being a bit of an F1 fan I found last week’s Canadian Grand Prix to be one of the best I have seen for a while (once it got going) and a few friends on Facebook agreed, all putting up satuses about it. Apart from one young lady I know who was quite disparaging about it. In an effort to help her see what we were all making a fuss about, I came up with this:
Ok, imagine there’s a pair of shoes in a sale you really want but you pick up the wrong size 6 times, then when you’re 4th in the queue for the till you realise you’ve not got any money in your purse and you have to go to a cashpoint and join the back of the queue with 10 minutes to go before the sale finishes and they double in price. You manage to blag your way to second in the queue with 2 minutes to go and you’re not sure you’re going to make it when the girl in front of you’s mobile goes off and she lets you in front of her. You get the shoes!! Exciting now??
Turns out she doesn’t really get excited about shoes either but I thought it was funny.
…in fact, I’d give my right arm.
Well, it helps break the ice.
I like doing things with a bit of danger involved. Along with my penchant for climbing there are several things on my 101 in 1001 list that a lot of people, on hearing I want to do them, say “Why would you want to do that??”. The bull run in Pamplona is probably the biggest example of this confused disbelief. My usual answer is “Why not?” but if I’m honest I don’t really know why I want to do these things, other than the vaguely unsatisfactory answer that I want to be able to say I’ve done them, to have a story to tell. Shark diving is the latest one that’s been put in my head, and if there’s a possibility the shark will attack the cage, even better.
But it doesn’t even have to be dangerous, just something with a consequence. I like pushing my luck, taking risks, whether it be an outrageous bluff in a game of poker or seeing if I can get home before the petrol runs out. I’m interested to see how I handle things if it all goes wrong. How do you really know where your limits are unless you go beyond them? “Here would be a good place to stop doing this, but I wonder how much further I can go before I really have to stop?”. How far across that log can I get before I end up in the water? How much further up this tree can I get? What part of the house can I get to and be back in the kitchen in time to stop the washing up overflowing?
I’ve been called an adrenaline junkie but I’m not sure that’s right, not in the sense it was meant. It’s not like I go base jumping every week or anything (although I’d love to give it a go) but I do enjoy the anticipation of getting ready to do something stupid. I love the nerves and and the excitment of something like sitting in the basket on a crane going up for a bungee jump but I get the same sort of buzz from driving past the last services for 40 miles when the petrol warning light is on, albeit on a smaller scale. Of course every now and then it does go wrong and I’ve found myself walking back towards those services through the undergrowth and fields alongside the motorway with a petrol can in one hand, some humble pie in the other and a wry grin. Don’t get me wrong, I love the adrenaline rush of doing a bungee jump or getting to the top of a tough climb but I savour the build up as well, and you can get that build up from little things as well as big things. Even acting can be an adrenaline rush, going out on stage in front of a large group of people knowing that, despite all the time you’ve spent learning your lines and moves there is still the same possiblility that your mind will go blank and you’re stuck. Coming offstage without that happening is a buzz but sitting backstage waiting to go on is almost as good.
For the really dangerous things, the bungee jumping, sky-diving, bull running, climbing, etc I think a big part of it is the fact that I’m doing something that could kill me. Of course I take every precaution against that possibility, I’m not reckless and I certainly have no interest in relinquishing my breathing privileges just yet, but I think a big part of the rush of doing this stuff is a primal “I’M STILL ALIVE!!” feeling. It’s a caveman thing, poking the sabre tooth tiger with a stick and getting away with it so you can poke him again another day. There’s always the chance that the tiger will catch you, that a rock will come away under your hand, the parachute won’t open, but if all goes well and you survive it’s a heady mix of endorphins and relief and it is addictive, as well as the feeling of invincibility that comes with it. The fact that you’ve got away with it once makes you think you can get away with it again, so you try again. And again. And again until it goes wrong or you get bored. The downside to getting bored is it means you go and find a bigger tiger to poke, it’s a bit of a vicious circle.
It’s the being bored part that makes me play stupid games with my petrol gauge and the other, less dangerous risks I take. I hate being bored. HATE it. I feel like I’m wasting time if I’m bored so when there’s no other entertainment to be had (such as on a long drive) I have to come up with this sort of thing to stop myself chewing on the steering wheel. I also have a lot of curiousity, “I wonder what would happen if…” is a common start to all this stuff for me. The small, harmless risks keep me from doing the really stupid stuff more often as well. If I may flog the petrol example to death, if I get home with only fumes in the tank I can spend a few days feeling smug and invincible and I’m less tempted to see if I can dash across the road before that bus gets to me. Think of them as adrenaline patches, a bit like nicotine patches but with a better kick.
Maybe I am a junkie after all.