I am Prousting like fuck at the moment.
I write this on a train winging its way through the Pennines from Sheffield to Manchester. This is the place where I grew up. It is a magnificent part of the world – undulating low hills and soft, shallow valleys, with small scatterings of forests, different mottlings of trees, all shades of green, as if a giant had scattered them here and there like a child dropping toys. And above the shady blanket of trees, the moors – bare and beautiful, rich purple shocks of heather, bare brown earth, and the occasional roads slithering around the foothills. I remember when I was a child I used to love walking in the hills – I loved starting in the forests at the apex of the valley and working my way up, till I passed the tree line and navigated the heather to reach the top of the hill. On a clear day, it was possible to see from the hills near my parent’s house all the way to the sea. I used to dream that one day I’d climb the hill and find on the other side a new land, a place of mystery and adventure, full of cool, unexplored forests and quiet rivers I could sit by and read. My childhood world was very confined, (something I’ve written about before) but I took some comfort in the belief that just over the next hill there would be somewhere new, somewhere I could escape to.
Of course, now returning as a 24 year old, I know that no matter how many hills I climbed, no matter how far I walked, it would always be the same. After a few hours I’d find a road, then hit a dual carriageway, then find yet another depressed northern town, still trying to hide the scars of Thatcherism beneath endless shopping centres, and then I’d keep going until I reached the sea, and the ground beneath my feet turned to water and I sunk, uncomprehending, like a stone.
Marx somewhere talks about the fetishism of a commodity, that is to say the unique life that an object possess, independent of its intended purpose. Cities are much the same in my opinion. Both Cambridge and Manchester are just that – cities, places to live, houses, buildings, streets, cars, traffic lights, schools, hospitals, shops, parks, all the things one would expect. Yet both places have a festishism of their own – they have a life for me beyond the buildings and the sights. Because, I suppose, I’ve lived two very different parts of my life in the two places.
It’s strange how, returning to somewhere you haven’t been for a long time, you fall back into the old habits so quickly. I know exactly where I’m going to grab coffee once I get off the train, a little vegan delicatessen in the Manchester North Quarter. I used to take girls there when I was at sixth form, to show off how alternative I was. That and the vegan carrot cake was amazing. Later this evening, I will be catching a gig at the Academy. I haven’t been there since 2008, but I know exactly where I’ll stand so I can get the best view of the band without getting squashed by the inevitable wall of death.
I wonder what it would be like if the 18 year me and the 24 year me met, and somehow managed to avoid the temporal paradox science fiction has led us to believe would be inevitable. I’m not sure they would get on. The 24 year me would think the 18 year me was vapid, arrogant, and was incapable of looking after, let alone standing up for, himself. The 18 year me would find the 24 year me intimidating and alien. Yet, if these two me’s got over disagreements about dress sense, they would probably have a lot more in common than they would care to admit. How would their conversation play out?
Does it get any better?
A bit, but you need to ditch those stupid frilly shirts. No one thinks you look like Shelley.
Ok, but how does it get better?
I’m not sure. Stuff happens I guess.
What kind of stuff? Any bad stuff?
More a long drawn out process of self acceptance.
You’re being vague and optimistic so you’re missing things.
You know me well.
Well, I am you, sort of.
Hypocrit lectuer, mon semblabe, mon frier.
You’ll get that reference in a year or two. So…first year will be rough. Your family is never going to like you. You need to take a long hard look at your own internalised sexism and privilege, despite the fact that you think you’re a feminist now. Be realistic with yourself about the work you’re doing – don’t be afraid to get involved. People will hate you, but they’ll hate you for the right reasons. They’ll hate you because you’re going to starting speaking out on issues no one wants to talk about. Also, you’ll meet a girl in the latter part of your degree – don’t go near her. She’ll damage you in ways it takes years for you to understand. That said, you meet a much better girl after that and she basically picks you up and puts you back on your feet. Oh, and maybe avoid certain “welfare providers,” at your college, they will fuck you over…but it gets better. You have a cat now, and a house, and you become a much much better comedian and 10,000 people a month read your online ramblings, and you get two degrees and you find a partner and all that jazz.
That…that’s a lot to take on board in one go.
Don’t worry about it, this conversation isn’t really happening.
It might go something like that, really. I don’t know. My train is about to get in, and I know exactly the steps I’m going to take from the moment I put my foot on the platform. I’m following the same path as before, but maybe I’m walking a little bit taller this time. Here’s hoping.
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