The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there

After umming and ahhing over a decent setting for my recent novel – Weekend Rockstars – I eventually settled on a fictionalised unnamed westcountry town that was unnervinglyclose to the Bideford I left over a decade ago. As I found myself lovingly describing pubs long gone and struggling to remember the names of streets I had walked down a thousand times I began to wonder why I ever left; and then I remembered, that Bideford only exists in my mind now.
To make it clear, I love Bideford, I moved there with my family at the age of five in 1983 and didn’t leave until 2004 – my parents still live there so I still visit regularly. A lot of people I know left Bideford forever in their twenties because it was too small, rural and constrictive – and had I left five or six years earlier than I did it would almost certainly have been for the same reason.
But I didn’t, and it wasn’t. Eventually I realised I am a yokel and my life is an everyday tale of country folk. Despite my teenage swagger and insistence that I was going to get out of there and do something, I had always loved the small town life: I could walk into almost any pub and the staff would greet me by name and have my usual drink ready before I had even reached the bar (I don’t know if that says more about me than Bideford in the 90s, but it feels relevant) and I was only ever a short walk from somewhere big and green, where the air didn’t choke.
Some time at the beginning of the new millennium all that started to change, the pubs began to close in the wake of Bideford’s first superpub – The Tavern In The Port, cheap prices, no soul and a disorientingly fast staff turnover rate (see any modern Wetherspoons for reference). I was having to walk farther and farther out of town to achieve solitude and my then-dog had developed arthritis in protest – restricting us to Victoria Park perambulations that had to be so early that they would encroach on the middle of the night if we wanted the quiet. The once recession-bitten streets of boarded-up shop fronts began to be tarted up, new shiny modern buildings began to replace the crumbling edifices I had romanticised beyond their almost-certainly-dangerously-rotten reality. I didn’t like it, longing for the return of Scudder’s Emporium.
The famous New Year’s Eve celebrations had become massive, highly organised affairs, rather than the spontaneous outbreak of fancy dress and crazy it had always been before all the publicity. Plastic glasses everywhere and no space on the bridge at midnight (though the latter was always the case). While New Year’s is now undoubtedly a lot safer than back when we used to do the 21 Newcastle Brown bottle salute at midnight – it’s not for me anymore.
I have since realised that it wasn’t Bideford’s fault, it was me (it would have been a real cliché of a breakup letter I would have had to write were Bideford a lady). The ever-growing nature of all towns is perpetual, a middle-aged Bidefordian from the 1890s would undoubtedly have complained about all the horses on the Quay compared to when he was a lad. No town in the world is ever the same town it was ten years previously. I ignored London for ten years as well, and didn’t recognise the city I eventually overcame my hatred of crowds to visit again (for clarification, it is a good deal nicer than it was back in the late 80s/early 90s).
I found another place (an undisclosed small town in the middle of Devon. I would tell you where it is, but if you all knew then you’d all come here, and I’d be back where I started). The barstaff know everybody’s name and what they drink, if an event is put on, then the whole town turns up to see it (oh look! A thing! We must go, we must go…) though if there is nothing on, then the streets are curiously empty, and any person encountered therein will greet you as a long lost friend whether you have ever set eyes on them before or not – city-dwellers beware!
You are never more than five minutes walk from a completely empty, bleak, barren and utterly wonderful bit of moorland. Although at certain times of day it is full of fellow dog-walkers, unless you know the empty places and how to get to them (I do, it is glorious). At our annual Chilli festival last weekend, the entire town had turned up – along with a smattering of newcomers, all of whom were being interrogated with smiles and enthusiasm. I was in a happy chatting group ranging from 80 something to 2 years old. None of us were related to each other (alright, the two year old’s Dad was with us).
When the Chilli chow-down (don’t ask, it is hellish) began, several of the contestants were pretty new to the town, including the winner. They got as big a cheer as the local institutions who were sat, sweating and crying until they dropped out. One of the newcomers is a skinny, odd, twenty something musician with a funny haircut. Just like I was 12 years ago when I came here, escaping the sprawling metropolis of Bideford, that I had once found so small and constricting.

(Originally published in the Bideford Buzz newsletter – October 2016)

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