I thought I grew up in a small town. It had two main roads, lots of parades of shops, a big green which hosted cricket and the May Day fete with real Morris dancing, and lots of pubs, which in the late 90s you could visit and drink and vodka and coke and eat crisps, and be quite safe, and no one worried that you were 16 not 18. There wasn’t a train station, the buses were terrible, you were reliant on lifts from parents and getting your driving licence asap. The nearest town had a three screen cinema, and a couple of dodgy night clubs mainly populated by squaddies from the military school nearby. There were two supermarkets, including a Waitrose, two petrol stations, an Anglican Church and a Catholic church. We were half an hour away from Reading in one direction, Guildford in the other, next to the motorway to London and a short drive to a fast train to Waterloo. Classic home counties suburbia. I didn’t know how lucky I was, to live in a four bedroom house in a cul de sac, and to go to an Ofsted outstanding secondary school, or to be able to get a job easily in a shop on a Saturday when I was sixteen, or the relative safety of that underage drinking in the days before mobile phones, social media, etc. Three members of my family had their ashes interred in the cemetery in the town where I grew up, but none of us live there anymore. I visit sometimes.
Fast forward twenty years, and I now live in a small town. But it’s totally different. Not suburban, a market town, really, but unique, because of the industry here, and its history. There’s a drug problem, an inequality problem, a desperate need for more housing, a single train track to the nearest two big towns which needs to be expanded, the closest motorway is a good half an hour away. There’s still nothing for teenagers, no cinema, no late night coffee shop, and frankly all the chain restaurants and a nightclub don’t make up for the fact there isn’t a decent bookshop, but there are many bookies… There’s a Waitrose, a Tesco, a green where the work riders play cricket, and a brand new museum. It’s a unique place to live, there’s something special about hearing the scrape of horses hooves on the tarmac, or the music drifting on the breeze from the racecourse on a still summer night.
Like any place, there are people who are born, live and die in the town where I grew up, and in the town where I live, and there’s something in that that comforts me. Lots of people I grew up with don’t live far from the town I no longer call home, and I understand that, completely. Quality of life, proximity of family, jobs, security…
I remember meeting a school friend who lives locally, and she asked “aren’t you pleased you moved away?” and yes I am. Even though it’s taken years to put down roots, to find friends, to have any sense of belonging. Until very recently, all my friends were people who were also from elsewhere. I felt like an outsider. I thought I was anonymous, and unknown. But it emerged that wasn’t the case. My children came home from the hospital to this town. They go to school in this town. I planted us here. All we have to do is flourish. It’s not a hard thing to do.