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.

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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.

homecoming

I just did my first ever gig in Northampton, and it was lovely.

That wouldn’t be at all interesting, of course, if it weren’t for the fact that I’m from there; I was born and grew up in Northampton. And it’s special. Not just special for me – just…special.

Alan Moore, who is also from Northampton (and famously still is), lives round the corner from the venue. He isn’t wrong when he goes on ad nauseum about what a remarkable place it is. It is remarkable, largely because of its unremarkability (it’s an average sized settlement of averagely mixed social class, slap-bang in the middle of an average bit of England; it really has almost nothing special about it apart from its resolute refusal to have anything special about it). But…also because there’s something about the air there. It smells sweet and frustrating and parochial and kind and arrogant and foolish, and that kind of air is creative rocket-fuel for me.

The gig itself, as one of the other acts pointed out, seemed to have everything possible wrong with it; free entry, in the main room of a pub, in a fairly insalubrious part of a provincial town, with the ‘stage’ right by the main entrance, an inexperienced compere (who, while potentially a great act, just didn’t have the stagetime behind him to do the almost impossible job of warming up a room), no name acts and a generally non-comedy-literate crowd. But it was genuinely great.

Unlike a lot of London gigs I’ve done recently, loads of people turned up (including some of my best ever friends who still live in town), the room was packed, and there was so much goodwill in the room that by the time I got onstage, the audience had figured out exactly when and how they were meant to respond to show their approval. And they did. The act on before me had just done straight gags and they’d loved it, so I did a fairly gag-heavy set based around my new ‘sir mix-a-lot’ bit, which plays with the conventions of joke form (albeit in a fairly tame way) and they seemed to really enjoy it.

In the gents afterwards, a man with classically bad Northamptonian hair said to me, ‘I liked your stuff – it was really…alternative’. When I explained that that term was often used as a veiled way of saying ‘not funny or good in any way’, he assured me that he really had meant it in a good way.

And for once, I actually believed him.