September 7th, 2003


It was twenty years ago today...

On the train again - Stirling-bound. It's twenty years since Billy went to University and in celebration of this somewhat surprising fact we're gathering together at his flat. I haven't seen Billy in over a year, and in the few years before that I saw him successively less and less.

Aside from being a friend, his role in my life had largely revolved around his game-running skills. He'd always been the one who could be cajoled into running something, always had new ideas and new twists to put on things, could always wring some new entertainment out of a game - even if we'd been playing it to death.

But the group he was playing with had become too young for me - he'd been hanging around the University since long before my time (1990 - 1994), happily unemployed and using the massive free time of the students to keep himself occupied. I was inducted into a long-running Warhammer game, sliding into a free-form cloud of around 12 players. There were rarely more than 6 or 7 at any one session, but the overall size meant that we'd always be able to form a reasonable sized group. I hate to think what I was like as a gamer at the time, but it was fun and the gaming group quickly became my social life (this being perhaps the first time I'd had a social life).

As time went by people would graduate and disperse, finding new lives and new jobs elsewhere. I couldn't bear to go when my time came - I wasn't ready, had no idea what I wanted to do or where I wanted to be. So I stayed, as did a couple of others, our accretion to a few others helping to form a stable base in the town and making it easier for later people to stay (and a couple of people to come back).

Billy carried on gaming, one of the few constant things in an environment with a 4 year turnover. This was it, I thought. I'd found my place to be. I got a bad job, then a better one, commuted to Glasgow for a year (an hour of cramped train hell, 8 hours of being treated like shit and then another hour back, wanting to kill everyone within 15 feet of me) and then found a good job with good people in Stirling.

I learnt a lot in the 4 years after that - my boss helped me learn about business and Gina helped me learn a lot about myself. When the company got taken over by fascists I knew it was time to move on. I grabbed the first job offer I got, ended up as an IT manager in Glasgow - the commute was even further and the job was hell - I wasn't suited for it and I didn't suit the company.

At the same time I realised that I wasn't fitting in in Stirling either. The friends I'd had had balkanised, terrible things had been said and couldn't be taken back. My visits to the other flats in Stirling had diminished and then stopped - I still liked the people, but I felt awkward in their company, like I was treading water. My connections had vanished when I wasn't looking and I had drifted from my moorings.

I tried to reconnect, visiting a few times to various places and discovered withdrawn islands of people. They were wrapped up in their own worlds, living their own lives or avoiding them. Only Billy was the same as he ever was, and even that was a problem. I'd stayed in Stirling because students were my kind of people, but I'd changed to the point where they weren't any more. I had to get out.

I had been noticing a drift in this direction for a few years by this point, but had told myself I'd get over it. That I'd drifted out of one niche, but Stirling was big enough for me to find another. Even as the feeling grew stronger I reinforced my denial, knowing that the only alternative was to move to a city, and desperate to avoid that.

I grew up near London and it was my blueprint for cities - dirty, noisy places where there was never a chance to stand still - where every patch of green was sculpted and surrounded by concrete- the kind of place where the rain made things dirtier. My brother Hugh worked in London for 9 months once and then quit to do a dull job somewhere that wasn't London - anywhere that wasn't London. In my mind every city was London and I wanted nothing to do with it.

Erin changed my mind. Well, her and Hal and Hugh and Guy. Not verbally, they never told me that Edinburgh wasn't like that, but I'd go to visit them and I'd see. The wide streets, the architecture, the views, the immense stretches of green, the 1000 foot hill embedded in the city. The cinemas, the theatres the festival, the galleries. When I'd seen it enough I realised that I could probably stand to live here. That I could find the space to stay sane while taking advantage of everything the city had to offer.

The party's over now - I'm on the train back. I've lived in Edinburgh for a year, I lived in Stirling for 12. When I saw the Ochils it felt like I was coming home - The Wallace Monument's one of the defining landmarks of my life, for 12 years I could find my way home if I could see it, the first sign that my train was nearing home. Alighting at the platform my feet traced steps they'd walked a thousand times, it felt familiar but strange, like walking into a favourite dream. I could walk this town blindfold, and that was my undoing - familiarity bred captivity and I got out before the bars could kill me.

I don't know my new home nearly so well. I hear the names of streets and they are unfamiliar to me, whole areas that mean nothing. Even in the town centre there are unfamiliar streets, surprise turnings and alleys I've never walked. There's space here to grow, not for ever but certainly for now.

On Writing

I mostly wrote the first entry on the train to Stirling, finished it on the way back and then wrote the party writeup. 1800 words in two hours on a tiny keyboard attached to my Palm T2. Brought it home, synchronised with the PC , corrected a couple of spelling mistakes and posted it. On the way there I had a table to rest on, on the way back I used my knees.

The sheer freedom of being able to write anywhere is a joy.