Continuing the general navel-gazing run of things, I stopped off in Durham, my old university town, last week, on the way to a dyspraxia speaking gig in Northumbria, to meet two friends from undergrad who still live there: my dear friend, just turned 30 and in the fifth year of the PhD From Hell, and her boyfriend, an academic. Going back to Durham will always be an incredibly sentimental exercise due to the sheer damn emotional upheaval that was involved in getting me there in the first place, and the fact that, from my contemporaries to older alumni, many of the people who’ve most shaped my life went there. When I last went back four years ago (to see the same friends, and research a creative writing project that’s had its format and synopsis changed a million and one times) undergrad was just starting to feel like a long time ago. Now it really does. I watch the Drop The Dead Donkey episode where everyone in the newsroom is aghast at a 20-year-old work experiencer getting a job at NBC and nod solemnly. Acquaintances are marrying and having children all over the place. My friend is now godmother (in a secular Guardian-reader way) to the child of the man who unceremoniously dumped her after three weeks in first-year (his wife is apparently perfect for him for a number of reasons, notably she remembers those little things he forgets to take when he goes away, like clean pants and socks…). My friend herself isn’t married despite the fact she and the Boy have been together 9 and a half years – they can’t afford it, or indeed afford to do many of the things their more high-earning friends are doing, which is obviously something I can empathise with epically. Both of them have faced some similar barriers to me in life, albeit with the advantage of having had each other for support. In-between catching up upon the past few years, came the inevitable reminiscing and comparisons of the then and now. The slightly sad influx of chain restaurants, which started while I was there, is now at full pelt. More encouragingly, the death-trap kebab shops of my student era are being replaced by nice independent cafes and coffee shops.
Next, to the speaking gig, an hour or so further up the coast. After a suitably dyspraxic morning of grappling with hotel door locks and wifi and feeling paranoid that staff and elderly guests had mistaken me for badly hungover, the speech went well. The town I was staying in itself is affluent (think tea rooms, second hand book and antique shops – the sort of place you’d go for a writer’s holiday…indeed, a well-known crime writer lives near the hotel) but the surrounding area is not. It was a very thought-provoking experience, addressing a community with next to no jobs, no investment and where people aren’t expected to amount to much regardless of SEN status. I pledged to do all I could to help, though I’m not entirely sure what that will involve yet. A Twitter-exchange later on with a fellow writer/occasional speaker about not being able to listen to your own voice reminded me that I still have the tape of the very first journalistic interview I ever did, aged 17, and sounding like a nervous fangirl chewing a wasp’s nest. The context is for a whole other post (and a counselling chair, probably…), but you get the idea. I dried in the middle of a question and I could hardly look her in the eye. Never mind paying me to trek across the country, stand up in front of people and do an unprepared Q&A, back then you would have paid me not to. On some level I needed to be reminded of it just to see that I have come a very long way since. Not as far as I would like, arguably, but far. As if to underline the point I had a followup email earlier today from a parent who’d heard the presentation and spoken to me briefly afterwards about her 11 year-old daughter, who she was seeking a diagnosis for and who had been having panic attacks. She apparently wants to be a writer and had been “inspired” by me, having looked up my work website. She was very excited that her mum had spoken to me and wants to email me herself. It is genuinely strange to think I could be someone could look up to when inside my head I still so often feel like that teenage fangirl playing at being a journalist. But I’m also moved, touched and very happy about it.
Afterwards, my friends asked me whether I ever missed Durham. Do I miss the place? Yes, sometimes (who wouldn’t miss this view, for God’s sake…?) and being there really feels like being in another country – more so than Wales felt when I lived there. To actually live in Durham would do a freelance writer’s head in but to visit it’s lovely and it would be good to do that slightly more often than once in three or four years, especially while two of my best friends still live there. But do I miss being that age? You mean do I miss perpetual confusion, contrived social events, unironic use of the word ‘banter’, real life versions of J.P in Fresh Meat, and being expected to meet anyone I want to share a bed with in clubs that play The Black Eyed Peas? Hells bells, no. I wouldn’t go back to any of that if you paid me. I like being this age, I just wish I had more money and security than I do (ie: “some”). So I guess I would go back if you paid me. It would need to be a damn lot, though.