Sunday, June 29, 2014

To see the world in a grain of sand, and heaven in a wild flower

The day we arrived on the Isle of Man I made a waxing appointment. It's one of my few grooming rituals, maybe the only one (bar moisturising every day) since I stopped dying my roots. Every four weeks, half leg and eyebrows, sorted. But I missed one, and hadn't managed to remake the appointment... I've not been up north long enough to be a regular with anyone yet, and I called a couple of times but didn't get a call back and I just got hairy. It's not the end of the world. But there was a beauty room right there in Peel, and she could fit me in at the end of the day on Monday. Perfect.

There's something about being a beauty therapist, you have to be good at talking to people or it can make a strangely intimate situation pretty awkward. And this one was very good... quite a lot younger than me (they nearly all are these days), a little self-conscious (also not uncommon) but at the same time self-assured - it takes skill and hard work to run that kind of business, and while she hadn't been set up on her own there for that long, she had big plans.

But what I found fascinating was that she was born in Peel and had lived there all her life... although she'd been 'across' (as she put it), I got the sense it hadn't been for very long and she had no great interest in it, or anywhere further afield. Her parents live up the road, and she and her sister have daughters the same age, who go to the same primary school as they did.

If I'd grown up in Peel it would have driven me CRAZY. A small town (village, really, even though it's got a castle and a cathedral, so is technically actually a city) on the other side of a small island from its capital, which itself isn't very big - essentially a place where the main story is a) the best part of 1000 years old or b) about a motorbike race that regularly kills people... I can't imagine the depths of anomie to which my teenage self would have sunk. I was once at a Mick Thomas gig with my friend Pete, and at the opening bars of The Lonely Goth he leant over and shouted 'this song always reminds me of you!' in my ear.

I protested that I was never (really) a Goth - I wore a lot of black, and I had hair like Robert Smith for a while, but there was no PVC in my wardrobe, and I did have other looks. But I know what he meant. I grew up in a small town - bigger than Peel, but with less to say for itself... also on the coast, also (in those days) playing very much second fiddle to Blackpool, where the bright lights were, and Preston, the nearest town of any size. It was intensely suburban. It was intensely provincial. I was intensely bored. There was (of course) nobody who understood me. Well, there were a couple of friends, and we would exchange books on radical feminism and tape albums for each other, but there was no critical mass of interesting, no cultural stimuli that I was drawn towards. I would play my Springsteen, my Leonard Cohen, my Suzanne Vega, and literally ache to get out of this place, to where there were highways, there were ideas, there were tea and oranges that came all the way from China.

And as soon as I could, I did. I went InterRailing with my friend R after my A-levels, and saw the Eiffel Tower and the Berlin Wall and the Anne Frank museum, slept in a train station a couple of times, and learnt that you *can indeed* live off bread, Laughing Cow cheese and cheap red wine. By my early 20s I'd spent three years at Cambridge, getting off my head in various new ways and absorbing as much horizon-expanding input as I could fit into my expanding horizon. Then I went out and saw as many different places as I could fit into a year on a shoestring. It wasn't wildly original, even then, but while there were Lonely Planet guidebooks in the early 90s, there wasn't any internet or any mobile phones, so you were on your own out there, even when there were two of you. And we went to the Pyramids and the Taj Mahal and Masada and the Great Wall of China and Lake Baikal, did a bungee jump in New Zealand, spent Christmas Eve on Had Rin beach, travelled to mountains and lakes and jungles and deserts, nearly died of typhoid (that was just me, but my Significant Ex did get dysentery three times *and then* giardia), recovered, had some meals I remember to this day for their fabulousness (a Yemeni lunch in Israel cooked by my cousin's husband's mother, my first masala dosa in what was then still Bombay, a fish and chilli salad near the Thai-Burmese border) or for their awfulness (instant noodles in Australian hostels, the food desert that was Moscow in 1993, 'vegetarian' options with bits of fur and claw in in China).

I'm not claiming any of this changed the world, apart from messing with the ozone layer more than staying at home would have done, but I couldn't get enough of it. And I didn't stop there, and I still haven't... when I joined NGO X I said I'd stay till I'd been able to see more of Africa than Egypt. Fourteen years later I've got a yellow fever vaccination certificate in my passport, together with stamps from South Africa, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania and Mozambique. Not forgetting Sudan. As if anyone could forget Sudan. And if you said to me tomorrow, hey, fancy a couple of weeks' work in Dakar / Dhaka / Dili I'd still be there like a bear.

And yet. As the Charlene song so beautifully put it, I've been to Nice and the isles of Greece, and I've sipped champagne on a yacht. But does it make any actual difference? Am I a better person than if I'd never left Lytham St Annes?

I think probably yes. I wanted to know what was out there in the world. No doubt having the option to find out was, and still is, a huge privilege, but if I hadn't I think I'd have been miserable. I've never actually *lived* anywhere but England, and I've never wanted to... I've thought about it, but a summer in the isles of Greece put me right off. And yet here I am, living 40 miles from where I grew up, less than 30 miles from where I was born. And yes, I have a fair idea how lucky I am.

I first came across this (I now know famous) TS Eliot quote on the wall of my ex-mother-in-common-law's house in 1989.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Twenty five years later, I can see he had a point.

And yet. I admire you, girl from Peel.


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