back in edinburgh

So I’m in Edinburgh again. And it would be weird not to blog while I’m here.

Plus it’s 8am, and most of the comedians will have only just gone to bed. There is not a single flyerer in sight. So, blogging it is.

I just got off a night megabus, and I’ve got that woozy, early morning slightly surreal just-tried-to-get-a-night’s-sleep-on-a-bus-and-failed feeling that I usually reserve for arrivals in Paris. It’s not that dissimilar from standard Edinburgh sleep deprivation, but it’s annoying because, as a veteran of night coaches, I had a sleeping strategy this time.

I didn’t even try to get my own double seat – I’ve tried that before and it just means that any massive snoring bad-smelling weirdo can come and sit next to you and take up all the space with their massive snoring bad-smelling body. But this time I knew all the seats would be fully booked, so I chose to try and get in the middle of the queue. That way, I could get on when about half the seats were taken. That way I could quite legitimately pick my weirdo.

I picked well: not far from the front there was a small woman, about forty-ish, who did not obviously smell and was having a quiet telephone conversation in a sane-sounding US accent. I sat next to her, and she gave me a polite, not-mental smile. When the bus pulled out, she settled over to the far side of her seat, put a blanket over her head and went into a calm, snoreless sleep, leaving me to celebrate the success of operation pick-your-own-weirdo, and feel just a little bit smug at not feeling too cramped.

At which point, the dark-haired man in the seat in front of me violently jammed his seat so far back into the reclining position that it almost crushed my legs. Then he couldn’t get it to go forward again – he’d forced the seat way further back than it was designed to go, and now it wouldn’t budge. He shrugged, lay back and closed his eyes, and I spent the rest of the journey unable to move my legs, and with nothing but a headrest separating the dark-haired man’s head from my crotch.

So I didn’t get much sleep. Whenever I’ve taken night coaches to Paris before, I’ve got over this feeling by sitting in the nicest café I can find and getting a café au lait. But this time I’m in Edinburgh.

So I’m sitting in Starbucks on the Royal Mile, looking over the crossroads where I’ve flyered for shows I’ve done every year for the last few years. It’s the place where I always notice how it’s suddenly getting dark early in the evenings towards the end of the festival. And no other square in the world has rained on me quite so much.

In fact now I come to think of it, this is the Starbucks where I come to get out of the rain. I’ve sat in this Starbucks before (many times), and it occurs to me that I’ve never actually been happy in here. In fact, I’ve only ever sat in here and felt depressed.

Come to think of it, I don’t really have very many memories of sitting anywhere in Edinburgh in the daytime and really being happy. I’ve always been miserable and worried and tired, and usually either hungover or still drunk. The few occasions I can remember being in Edinburgh and being really happy have almost always been followed by sudden, crushing downs that were usually a direct result of whatever it was that made me happy in the first place.

Still. I’m here now. And I’m only here for three days, and I’m not doing a show.

So perhaps this year will be different.

And the first step towards that is to get out of this fucking Starbucks.

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ramblin’ man

I woke up yesterday morning in a backpacker hostel in King’s Cross. It was the fifth bed I’d woken up in since the previous Monday.

To be honest, it’s been a challenging week. The first week back from Edinburgh always is, but I don’t usually try to do it homeless. Also I don’t usually drink so much and make so many bad judgments.

Unlike the weeks before Edinburgh, when I quite enjoyed the whole travelling thing, I’d quite like to go home now, if only I had one to go to. Since I woke up – massively hungover – in the empty Edinburgh flat last Monday, I’ve slept in my sister and brother-in-laws’ spare room, my mother’s house in Northampton, Loz’s house in Stoke Newington, and last night’s hostel bed.

The hostel was quite nice, in fact; and perversely, the nights you’d expect to be the alcoholic ones (the backpacker hostel and the night I met Loz in the pub and stayed at his house) have been the most civilized. It was pretty great to see Loz because I missed him in Edinburgh – he was busy getting engaged instead, which is kind of beautiful and also kind of terrifying because he and his girlfriend have always been glowing beacons of successful cohabitation. It means there’s more steps to settling than I’m anywhere near.

Hell, I don’t even have a house.

More importantly, I don’t really have a home. My mother’s flat in Northampton feels kind of homely and very loving, but I’ve never lived there and I can’t seem to relate to Northampton at all any more. I know I was born there, but my parents weren’t and I might as well have been born in Leicester or Salisbury or Tewkesbury for all the ancestral attachments I’ve got to the place. Getting off the train into the sunlight and the familiar smell of hops from the Carlsberg factory was nice, but people do often feel strange genetic links to places (whether it’s from unique climates or from generations of their ancestors eating from the soil or whatever) and I don’t feel it with Northampton. It’s just a big, weird suburban sprawl in the middle of England, and to cope with being there on Saturday I had to get stupendously drunk in the kind of bar where everyone drinks cocktails out of coconut shells and pretends that their lives aren’t being wasted.

In fact, the only really fulfilling thing that I’ve got out of Northampton this week was finding out from my mum that its greatest ever MP Charlie Bradlaugh (who is one of my all-time political heroes) supposedly once had an affair with Ellen Terry, (who – as well as being a distant relative of mine – was also supposedly the greatest actress of the Victorian age). It just seems like the perfect Politics/Showbiz match-up and I like that there’s some of my genetics in it.

But neither Terry nor Bradlaugh ever stayed put either, partly because both had dangerous habits of getting involved in both foreign and domestic politics. And Northampton’s such a dodgy Middle England swing town now that it would never return someone as ballsy as Bradlaugh even once, let alone four times. That town can’t be my home.

The closest place I have to a home is London. Well, specifically Crouch End. But the only evening I’ve spent there this week, I accidentally crashed a party, missed my train and ended up learning things that maybe would have made me act differently a long time ago if only I’d realized them when it wasn’t all too late. Then I shot myself in the foot again the next day via email.

Ah, well. Things appear and things disappear.

Anyway, the point is that I do love moving around all the time, but I’ve done it for a few months now and I think I need to stop somewhere. I never thought I’d be a settling-down-white-picket-fence-kinda-guy. But I’m homeless and tired right now, and perhaps I could be persuaded.

time in northampton

Sometimes the passing of time doesn’t concern me, and sometimes it does.

I left my Dad and Jenny on the boat in Reading (which, by the way, seems to look like a bizarre patchwork of run-down 1980s helltown and 1990s architect’s model of a perfect waterside metropolis) and have now come to Northampton.

Northampton, for those of you who don’t know this, is where I grew up and where my Mum and a good handful of my real friends still live.

And this afternoon I went to visit my friend Natalie, who recently pulled off the quite impressive trick of squeezing a real live brand-new human out of her cervix.

She’s looking pretty good for it; and the baby is looking very lovely too. But – and I know this is a banal thing to say, but I’m going to say it anyway – I couldn’t help but be surprised by how quickly we’ve gone from sitting in school classrooms together as 16-year-olds to being thirty and Natalie having bought a house and becoming a mother.

And I was telling Natalie’s boyfriend Matt about how the sixth-formers I teach now don’t believe me when I say that when I was in the sixth form nobody had mobile phones. (“So how did you text each other?” they ask, completely straight-faced.)

And we talked about how the music we listened to as kids – 2Unlimited, Nirvana, Oasis even – has the same kind of historical relevance to today’s teenagers as, say, ABBA did for us, in that it’s now retro music that came out around or before the time they were born.

And we sat there terrified for a few minutes.

I walked home from Natalie’s – past the streets I lived on when I was growing up; past the county cricket ground with its big new stands that were never there when I was a kid; and through Abington Park. The park is packed full of memories, of course, and particularly so because it’s the first week of the school holidays and was swarming with feral teenagers, just as it used to be when I was one myself.

I bought a cappuccino at the Abington Park cafe (you could never have got one of those back when it was called The Old Oak) and I stopped to look at the ‘aviary’.

For some reason, in Abington Park there is a path, which is flanked on either side by rusting cages full of ‘exotic’ birds: canaries, parakeets, and so on, that seem completely unchanged since my first memories of them nearly thirty years ago.

The grand finale of the little ornithological spectacle was always the peacocks. Such majestic birds! Except that the peacocks in Abington Park hardly ever showed their feathers. In almost all of my memories of them, they just sat there, feathers tucked away, doing nothing.

And today they were still sitting there, almost exactly the same. There they were, trapped and bored like everyone else by Northampton and its sprawling wasteland of houses and industrial estates; its nothingness in the very middle of the very middle of the Midlands; trapped there like so many of my friends, for whom lowered ambitions and property super-inflation have kept them stuck, wings clipped, in this godforsaken characterless nothingness of a town.

And I thought about the passing of time again, and didn’t know whether to be frightened or relieved.

one of the dark places of the earth

Last night we left the canal and joined the Thames.

I had an argument with a girlfriend once, about whether the Thames could be counted as ‘great rivers of the world.’ It was a foolish argument, the kind of thing that lovers argue about when they can’t face whatever it is they really need to be arguing about; but I remember it vividly.

We were in Paris, and I’d claimed, without really thinking, that the Seine, like the Thames, was ‘one of the great rivers of the world’, and she said it couldn’t be because even though the Seine – and the Thames too – have got some interesting human settlements on them, they are nowhere near as long as the Amazon or the Mississippi. And I pointed out that length isn’t everything, and to her credit she resisted the obvious barb and said it is when you’re talking about what makes a river ‘great’.

But somehow it became quite an unpleasant argument. Like I say, there were probably other things we really should have been arguing about.

The point is, I still think I was right. Obviously we were just using different standards of ‘greatness’ (she was using a fairly narrow geological measure of value, wheras I was linking it to human culture and history). And however dumb it might seem, we weren’t the first people to have that same argument – when John Burns famously called the Thames “liquid history”, it was in response to American who had compared it unfavourably with the Mississippi (which is good, because on its own it would be a bit of a fatuous thing to say from an otherwise remarkably smart fellow).

But the Thames is a strange and wonderful river; when you’re travelling down it you do feel like you’re re-travelling a very very ancient and beautiful path that hasn’t really changed in three thousand years.

I think one of the reasons that my lover in Paris might have held the Thames to be of less value – in addition to its size, although it is the longest river in England – is that it’s so familiar. We know the Thames, we know where it goes and what its banks look like (idyllically rural – from Oxford on, it’s almost all trees and cottages and cows and pretty towns until you hit London). Unlike the Amazon, there is little that is exotic or strange about it for us.

But that’s just because of the perspective we’re looking at it from. As Marlow says of the Thames in the opening pages of Heart of Darkness, “this also was once one of the dark places of the earth.” For anyone trying to get into England – the Romans in particular – the Tamesis was, for centuries, a strange and terrifying river, wide and deep and with a danger of tribal attacks around every turn. For one of Claudius’ men trying to get inland in the first century, It must have been terrifying.

Perhaps we’ve become numbed to that now.

And yet, there are still strange and terrifying experiences to be had on the Thames for those who look. Between Oxford and Reading, we passed bunches of the kinds of houses and gardens that people are only supposed to live in when they have won the lottery. But the people who live in them, with their twenty-room mansions and huge riverside summer-houses and boat-houses, live in an entirely different world to me. The fact that these folk are wealthy enough to live next to the river meant that we were able to see, from the river, into a world that I would normally very rarely see.

What did they do to come to posess such houses and gardens? Where did all that wealth come from, and where is it going? Who has been, and who is yet to be, harmed in the process? What darknesses are hidden in that money and that power?

(I’m not saying wealth is necessarily bad; I’m just saying that for those who don’t have it but who do ask questions about the causes and effects of it, it is very strange and a little terrifying.)

I love the Thames; my family have lived on and around it forever, and I will always think that it is one of the great rivers on earth. But for most of us, it still contains strange, dark worlds that are impossible for proletarian explorers to penetrate.