I arrived to find the guesthouse deserted in the familiar manner and spent ten minutes ringing the doorbell. Eventually I decided to phone the B and B to get access. The cleaner answered, then appeared from a caravan in the car park. She claimed to have been putting some finishing touches to it before going on holiday, finishing touches which so far hadn’t included putting some wheels on it. Showing me the room she asked why I’d come. When I said I just wanted to see what the city had to offer, her nervous laughter drew up just short of full-blown hysteria. In the guesthouse’s visitor’s book, under the heading ‘reason for visit’, there wasn't a tick box for ‘morbid curiosity’ or ‘mid-life crisis mini-break’ or even ‘long dark weekend of the soul’. But if I'm honest I'm not sure why I went there.
I found the city strangely conducive to deep existential angst. Perhaps I should’ve been warned by Linda Smith’s old joke where she claimed her native Erith wasn’t twinned with anywhere but it did once have a suicide pact with Peterborough. The extent of my torpor’s indicated by my response when I found a fiver on the floor in a poundshop. Ordinarily, I’d see that as about as sweet as it gets, but I could hardly raise a smile.
Maybe it was the sheer dim-witted capriciousness of my decision to visit Peterborough that tipped me into a downward spiral of remorse and self-attack. The city had always lurked tantalisingly on the National Express discount fare timetable, teasing me with the fact that the only way to go there on a daytrip would be to turn round and head back to London immediately on arrival. Instead of taking this as an omen, or travelling by train, I decided to make a weekend of it.
And this soon began to take on symbolic significance as the latest in a long line of bad choices, the latest instalment in a long tale of rudderless quiet desperation. I was in one of those moods where my entire back-story just seemed like one daft idea after another. One of these days I’ll write a memoir detailing the windmills I’ve tilted at down the years. Working title; ‘Lifetime Underachievement Award’.
Peterborough’s resolute ordinariness was a factor in my mood, I think. Something about the unblinkingly self-contained normality of it made me feel utterly surplus to requirements, marginal in a town with no visible margin. From the woman in Poundland chiding her grizzling child with the words, ‘Why can’t you be like your brother, happy as Larry with his £1 gun?’, to the cud chewing youths in the bus station, it all gave the feeling of having my nose pressed against the glass of the normal world.
Nose-diving towards despair I vowed to distract myself on the Saturday night with a dose of escapism. My default mode of escape is the movies and has been since I was first able to afford the price of admission. In my desperate teens I even went twice in one week to see the film version of the TV series Man About the House. I don’t remember much about the film but the shame of being that bored remains with me.
Peterborough has one picturehouse, an uberplex called the Showcase cinema on its light-industrial fringe. To get there I took the main option for the car-less – one of the city’s fleet of grim hopper buses. These shuttle endlessly back and forth like Pacmen around the labyrinthine housing estates that seen to go on forever. Every bus I went on that weekend carried at least one blank-eyed youth playing music out loud on their mobile. I began to wonder if it was some sort of strange performance art youth employment scheme.
Predictably I got lost. After twenty minutes of wandering the darklands I saw a huge brightly lit hangar-like structure in the distance. The sign looked like it said Showcase. As I drew closer it turned out to be a branch of Homebase. It was still open at 7.45pm. I asked one of the workers for directions. On my way again I reflected on my time spent in my early twenties working for a similar chain of DIY stores. Just after I left they extended Saturday opening hours until 8.30. The path not travelled, the shelves not stacked. Things could be worse. I might feel out on a limb these days but at least I don’t come home from work stinking.
I eventually found the cinema and followed a snaking queue of cars into a carpark the size of two football pitches. I gawped bleakly at the marquee listing the films on offer. I couldn’t face one of them. It felt like walking into an all you can eat buffet and suddenly coming over nauseous. I took the hopper bus back to town and sat in my room watching the tiny portable TV and drinking myself frantic with complimentary coffee.
Beside the odd moment caught from the corner of my eye in pubs and takeaways I’ve barely watched television for about four years. It felt strange knowing I was one of millions doing roughly the same thing. Miles from home, it was oddly comforting knowing that countless others had, likewise, nothing better to do.
How rarely I’ve had that, the sense that I was dancing round the same handbag as everyone else. Clearly, many people are as ill at ease in their lives as I’ve sometimes been in mine. But some aren’t. And increasingly I see that as a talent, a bit like an innate, unearned knack for drawing or music, something both enviable and mystifying.
Of course, I’m probably overstating my case. Orwell said any life viewed from the inside seems like a series of defeats. I know that many people’s lives are hobbled with failure and unease, and they hold it all together with a ragbag of distractions and excuses. I know there are countless ways we keep ourselves occupied and take our minds off our feet of clay.
In Peterborough the distractions on offer tended towards the obvious. The two local branches of Wetherspoons were doing a brisk trade with the maudlin of the town. When New Labour liberalised the licensing laws there was talk of creating a Continental style drinking culture in the UK. In Wetherspoons there wasn’t a beret or cravat to be seen, but plenty of soft-eyed pensioners in cheap shoes biting into their second pint of super cider at 9.30 in the morning. The liquid breakfast is now recognised as a legitimate niche market.
One older punter had the shakes so badly I could hear his glass rattling against the table from the other side of the pub. He could only get the glass to his lips by holding it in both hands. He reminded me of one of those children’s animations where a character operating a pneumatic drill continues to vibrate long after he’s stopped work.
Even for those with healthier hobbies the prospects were slender. On the Sunday morning, struggling to fill the day, I went to the local train-related ‘attraction’, Railworld. My hopes weren’t high. When I’d announced my intentions to the landlady of the B and B she sighed and said, ‘I suppose you might as well seeing as it’s just up the road.’
It was a collection of flyblown portakabins painted in what I assume was left-over Royal Blue paint. The huts contained a succession of displays that might have been knocked up for Geography GCSE homework by a bright but lazy fifteen year old. I started resenting the admission price within minutes, a grievance exacerbated by the fact that the ten year old son of one of the volunteer staff insisted on following me round and asking me at regular intervals whether I’d paid to get in.
Directly next door was the Nene Valley railway. Some wheezing, threadbare diesel trains were being given a day’s outing. I infiltrated the shuffling throng of other middle-aged dateless wonders on the platform. I was just thinking that sort of thing’s probably nice for people who like that sort of thing when I overheard two cagoule-wearing compadres. One turned to the other and, surveying the station and Railworld beyond with a baleful eye said, ‘Look at the state of it. It’s a shit-hole. We probably shouldn’t have come – it’s only making us feel worse.’ I suddenly felt a strange affinity with him.
For those seeking escape into high culture, the pickings are slim in Peterborough. I took a scoot round the city museum. It had a plaque outside warning that it reserved the right to refuse admission, but judging by the footfall when I was there, they needed someone outside with a shepherd’s crook dragging people in. Perhaps the sign was a relic from a time when the city’s shiftless drunks and ne'er-do-wells needed somewhere to sit indoors in the warm. Before Wetherspoons came to town, then.
The museum contained little of note. The sameness of everywhere perhaps isn’t as new as we like to think. Most municipal museums suggest it’s been going on for some time. Look, we found some fossils. The Romans came here. We used to make things. Great! Curiously, there was a visiting exhibition of embroidery, the highlight of which was a crimson, appliquéd handbag that rather resembled a random tray of giblets.
Although Peterborough’s got a weekly art house film society that’s managed to sustain itself for 62 years, generally the city seems too busy getting on with it to have much time for the highbrow. Perhaps that accounts for the apparent lack of local interest in that last refuge of the scoundrel; Bohemianism. It seems that if and when the good folk of the town find the conventional compensations aren’t available or aren’t enough, few of them resort to growing goatees, signing on so they can concentrate on their screenplay, or breezily informing you that they do a bit of dee-jaying as if it’s some sort of vocation.
And the place is all the better for it. I’ve always seen that lifestyle as a cop-out, an attempt to excuse yourself from the ordinary, to escape your own ordinariness. It’s the polar opposite of amateurism, a creative tradition I’ve got much more time for. Amateurism isn’t an attempt to escape the ordinary, but an attempt to make being ordinary a better thing.
But what about my own creative pretensions, in particular my attempts to write fiction, an excuse I’ve made to myself for myself since my late teens? When I was about nineteen, I attempted a ghost story. The memory of it makes me shudder even now, for all the wrong reasons. I naively submitted to a random selection of magazines. I remember one rejection slip from a magazine called Sappho. The slip showed a tastefully drawn female nude. I assumed at the time it was some sort of classy wank mag.
Eventually, one editor was kind enough to return my piece with a letter explaining that nobody was ever likely to publish it. Rightly, he pointed out the plot was pretty obvious. I’d misused the apostrophe and I needed to pay more attention to the craft of writing.
I thought, ‘The craft of writing? The what now?’ I suppose it was a start of sorts.
After much procrastinating and a dizzying array of false starts I settled to writing. I suppose I’ve been at it consistently for about fifteen years. I can only marvel at how little fiction I’ve produced. Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones once said he’d been in the band twenty five years – five years playing the drums, twenty years waiting about. My fiction writing years were like that; three years writing, twelve years staring out the window sucking my biro.
But now, certainly as far as fiction goes, it feels over. I always had a pretty limited range. I mainly wrote about disappointed people struggling with loss and the fear of loss, intimacy and the fear of intimacy, in and around South East London, or Willson Country as I like to call it. Pretty niche. I was starting to repeat myself.
I tended to default to one of two types of ending, either of reconciliation or departure. These I thought of as, respectively, the Mike Leigh ending and the ‘fuck this, I’m off’ ending. I sometimes wish I’d just been better at making stuff up.
And part of me is relieved that I don’t have to worry about any of that any more. I’ve spent ages trying to wrestle the stuff of life into something like fiction. I think now, perhaps, my energy would be better directed wrestling the stuff of life into something like a life.
But was it all just a waste of time, a daydream that went on too long? Aside from the satisfaction of seeing my work in print, there were secondary benefits. Not long after I received the punctuation advice above it occurred to me that, if, as it seemed, a particular type of person wrote fiction, I should become like that type of person in at least one respect. I decided to go to university. I’d failed English Lit ‘O’ level at school. I ended up with an MA in the subject. That educational process developed my ability to think and built my confidence, in some areas at least. Nowadays, if I cross swords with somebody I can give them a run for their money in a reasoned argument whereas in my teens and early twenties I’d have had to rely on my ability to swear like a sailor and seem potentially unstable.
And now that it seems to be going from me, I realise that writing gave my mind something to do. I think everyone’s brain has a certain amount of surplus capacity, which behaves like a spare bedroom. If you don’t fill it up with something worthwhile, it only gets cluttered with shite. If I haven’t got some creative outlet, my brain’s spare capacity defaults to seething obsessively over every petty grievance, annoyance and anxiety.
On the Sunday evening I managed to pick up a local listings magazine. I discovered I’d missed an evening of death metal the night before. It was the last live entertainment for a week so I called it a night.
Back in my room, undressing for bed, I spotted a tired and sagging old man in an inconveniently placed wall mirror. It was me. Years ago someone told me I was one of the few people she’d met who looked better with their clothes off. I think it was partly a comment on my dress sense, but what wouldn’t I give for somebody to say that now.
In my early to mid-thirties people occasionally said I looked ten years younger. I had to ask a lot of people but it still counts. But being told that at that age isn’t much use; you don’t feel the benefit.
Maybe my surprise at ageing isn’t that remarkabl. In terms of family clues as to what the physical future holds, I haven’t got much to go on other than my maternal granddad. If he’s anything to go by I’ll end up as bald as a monkey’s arse. I never saw my dad grow old. And that, maybe, is the foundation of so much of this weekend’s moping.
This year I’ll turn forty seven, the age my dad was when he killed himself. A friend of mine said that people she knew in the same boat felt that, somehow, once they’d passed the age at which their parent died, they were in the clear, as if they’d outrun some ghost. Although I remember feeling some satisfaction at turning thirty four because I’d done better than Jesus, I never really thought about my dad in the same terms.
That said, I do have this strange feeling that the game’s about to go into extra time. It reminds me of a sensation I’d get in my first job. Each afternoon, as it came near to 3.45pm, school ‘hometime’, I’d think, right, that’s me finished. Then I’d realise I had another hour and fifteen minutes of life-sucking tedium to get through before my release.
It seems I haven’t given enough thought to how to occupy myself for this length of stay. I’m in need of a Plan B. Technically it still counts as a Plan B because I’ve been through the alphabet and lapped myself a few times.
The next morning, feeling every second of my age, I sat waiting at the bus station for my coach to take me back to the landmarks of my routine. A sullen, big-framed girl of about fifteen shouted over to me. ‘Excuse me. Can I have your number?’ I ignored her. She shouted again. ‘Excuse me, mate. Do you know your willy’s hanging out?’
I had the presence of mind not to check, but it felt like a Pyrrhic victory. It couldn’t have been clearer news. I’m now seen as the sort of sexless old duffer it’s safe for teenage girls to rip the piss out of in a suggestive way. What is to become of me?