Saturday, 2 September 2017

Looking Back: My Move to Scotland

"Driving away from home
Thirty miles or more
And we'll go moving away from home
Without a care in the world"
"Driving Away From Home" - It's Immaterial

Last Wednesday marked the 20th anniversary of my move to Scotland. As I left my friend Chris's home in the North West and headed up the M6 (listening to how Palace were losing at home to Blackburn on the way) I could not have foreseen what the following years would bring.

I first made some Scottish friends in the summer of 1994, when a group of 4 girls came to visit my parents' Church and my parents offered one of them a room. This wasn't without issue, as a friend of mine (whose name may be an anagram of the word "Tap") speculated in a particularly amusing way that she must have an horrendous anger problem. To be honest, in that particular case, he wasn't wrong. However in a short time close friendships formed, and a fair number of my friends in Hampshire returned the favour by visiting Scotland over the coming months. I was quite late to the party, and didn't get the opportunity to visit until February of 1995. I spent two really fun weeks there and got back to my university home so late that my housemates wondered if I was coming back. To be honest, a big part of me didn't want to be back.

That didn't mean that I would always feel that way. My visit the following February went so badly that I said I would never come back. Instead I was back barely six months later, where things arguably went worse and I was certain I would never come back. To use my favourite Bill Simmons quote, "The lesson as always, I'm an idiot." And if you don't think I'm an idiot, try doing what I did and tell a girl what a good person you are for forgiving her for lying to you. With a bit of luck you too can experience a silent train journey out of Edinburgh while she paints her nails. Good times!

Luckily for me my Scottish friends are - and indeed continue to be - very forgiving (also exceptionally kind and unbelievably generous, don't expect your typical stereotypes here as they just aren't true). And so I stayed in touch, back in a time that people sent actual letters, phoned and hoped that people would be in to take the call and even sent a fax on occasion (in my case when I had my long awaited hernia operation in the autumn of 1996). As a recent graduate without a permanent job the invitation I received to move there when I visited in April 1997 was one I accepted, although not without some serious consideration first.

So anyway, looking back, what have I learned?

1 - Visiting Somewhere Is Not The Same As Living Somewhere

As I settled in Scotland I went about the things that you do. You find a job, you register with a Doctor, who get to find favourite new places to replace your former favourite places. I tried to make the best of living alone for the first time, watching favourite films (ok, just Top Gun) over and over and over again in my flat. It was fine, until it wasn't, and I realised - much to my surprise - that I was homesick.

On the occasions that I wasn't falling out with people or trudging around shin-deep in snow, I had loved visiting Scotland. I never ever expected to be homesick. It was a shock to the system, and something that lots of calls back home to friends made easier. Not that it was altogether easy. Mobile phones weren't commonplace yet and therefore people like my best friend weren't available to speak to at all. Visiting usually came in two week periods of time, and they would end, and I knew at some point that I would be back somewhere that I knew and was completely comfortable. Committing to somewhere for a prolonged period changes your thinking and your actions somewhat. This leads to point 2.

2 - I Didn't Lean On My Local Friends Enough

Unlike some people who move somewhere new, I had plenty of friends. However I didn't want to be a burden, and so I didn't lean on them for support. I concentrated upon making further new friends (none of whom were as close as my previous friends), writing home, working (often late, just due to shift hours) and amusing myself by myself.

Just after the New Year it was pointed out to me that plenty of my friends weren't really seeing a lot of me. I was staying in Bellshill at the time, which happened to be the wrong side of where everybody tended to meet. I was a bit isolated, but not terribly so. What I needed to do was to work harder at being a friend, and make myself more available. I don't think you can do it forever, but when you make such a move you need help to settle in.

3 - I Didn't Lean On My Old Friends Enough

Within two months of moving I was back to see Chris for a weekend. At the time Chris was just a stone's throw from a junction of the M6, just about 3 hours or so from the flat I was renting. And so I left work, drove South, stayed on Friday, watched Palace win at Sheffield Wednesday on the Saturday, went to an Indie club in Manchester that night before having a Sunday morning viewing of Match of the Day prior to heading home.

The right way to handle homesickness? Possibly not, but it worked for me. Realistically, I should have done it more.

That isn't to say that I didn't get away, but I didn't necessarily call upon the right people. On one occasion I went to see an old friend in Romford, which would have been fine if 1) They weren't well-meaningly trying to set me up with a friend (which I wouldn't have said no to at the time), and 2) If I hadn't had one of the worst meals I've ever had in my life, pasta with a garlic sauce so potent I just couldn't finish it. Overall it wasn't a way to unwind.

I picked my spots about coming down, sometimes very poorly. I was invited back to a friend's 21st and feeling that homesickness combined with a party with old friends might be the final straw to what was increasingly looking like a bad idea, I declined the invite. I was going to speak to the birthday girl on the day though, so the night before when I was invited out I planned to make the best of it. Instead I had an absolutely horrendous night, culminating in missing a motorway junction and getting lost. The following morning on the phone I lied through my teeth about how much I was enjoying life in Scotland.

Fact is, if I had been honest with more of my old friends I think that they absolutely been willing to help me. However they couldn't do that if I didn't tell them the truth. I really thought that I would move to Scotland and everything would fall into place: home, career, personal life. It did everything but (especially career wise, as I going to a job I hated) and I didn't want to admit it. I wasn't just lonely and homesick, I was a lonely, homesick liar.

4 - I Didn't Diversify My Friends Enough

This particular issue didn't really cause problems until I had lived here for nearly seven years. Although I was married by this point my wife and I were still part of a pretty big social group. It was really our only social group, and we never saw what was coming.

I don't think it serves any purpose to say why it happened, but the larger group irreparably fractured. Friendships that predated my arrival by many years were destroyed. Although it was not in any way the fault of either of us, my wife and I found ourselves stuck in the middle of it all. It was a point where no decision was a decision, and we were seen to be taking sides. It was an awful time when in fact Lorraine and I had plenty to appreciate (career stability, a nice holiday a few months away, plans to start a family).

To this day we remain somewhat collateral damage of this, as there are plenty of sadly former friends who no longer speak to us. There are times I want to label it as pathetic, when it is just terribly sad. And we were by no means the biggest victim of it all. A matter of weeks ago I saw one of the former friends in a local supermarket. Frankly I was somewhat relieved when she didn't see me. Unfortunately among this group that isn't unusual.

Shortly after I moved to Scotland a group of what I guess would have been about 15 of us went out for lunch to celebrate a member of the group's birthday. From that entire group I'm now friends with a mere handful of them.

Over time I've become more diversified in my friendships. I've got work colleagues, parents of my daughters' friends and even - say it quietly! - in-laws. You can't put all your eggs in one basket, as the saying goes.

I'll be right back after this musical interlude, a song I always think about in regard to relationships which have taken a turn for the worst. There's a lot to be said about forgiveness.

The Heart of the Matter - The Eagles from Chris G on Vimeo.

5 - Family Kept Me Here... The Future, Who Knows?

What helped me with loneliness and homesickness all those years ago? The woman who eventually became my wife.

Earlier this summer I had the opportunity to return South. I was offered a job back South of the border following a speculative interview. Two things kept me from accepting the offer, 1) A murderous drive home up the M6, and 2) The knowledge that my daughters are settled where they are. This was all before I began to seriously investigate the cost of housing back in the South of England (I'm somewhat aware of the gap in housing prices, and worry that it makes returning permanently at any point in the future an impossible proposition).

Whenever I go back to Selhurst Park to watch Palace I end up tweeting a photo from my seat and refer to being "back home". Home can mean a lot of things, but in regard to being relaxed, comfortable and glad to be there going to watch Palace does feel like home (at least until the visiting team scores, which seems to happen more often than not these days).

Under the same definition home with my wife and daughters is also clearly home, but is the wider environment around me? Due to the commitments of being a husband and father I'm once again less able to make time for my friends, and if I end up scheduling time for friends it ends up being for those who are further afield. East Sussex, Birmingham, just outside Manchester, they can all feel like home when you're around the right people.

I miss lots of my old friends, but I especially miss my best friend Neil. I'd love to be nearer to him and to do more socially with him. If I were nearer him I would be nearer to a lot of other friends as well. Things would certainly be different, but could I confirm they would be better?

Realistically I don't think I would ever willingly be separated by a great distance from my daughters. But what if they move? Where do I place myself then? The thought of being one of those sad fathers who has his daughters worrying about him all the time doesn't really appeal to me, I want them to thrive, get on and do great things with their lives.

Reviewing this makes it seem that I either do or should regret moving here, when I honestly don't, despite what have frequently been difficult circumstances. I know life isn't all smooth sailing, but I ultimately want my life here to be considered under my own terms as a success. Thankfully I still have more time to get those things right.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

What's wrong with Riviera?

Unless you go around with your eyes closed you can't have missed the many billboards advertising Riviera on Sky Atlantic. Given the channel's previous choice of programming, including personal favourites Mad Men and The Affair (not to mention Game of Thrones, which isn't my thing, sorry), I thought I would give it a shot.

The first few episodes were pretty good, setting the story of American newly-wed Georgina (Julia Stiles) living in Monaco when her professional life in the art world is brutally interrupted by the death of her husband, banking magnate Constantine (Antony LaPaglia).

Sadly since the first few episodes the programme has stalled, for many reasons that I will detail below.

1) Weak Characters

Now there is every possibility that I'm not paying close enough attention, but Georgina and Constantine are the only characters I know by name. There's the ex-wife, the stereotypical rich kid laying waste to the family inheritance, the slightly more sensitive son, the self-harming/always high daughter. Outside the family there's Georgina's obviously British male friend who nobody questions the presence of (which seems odd when she's just been widowed, surely someone would be bothered by this?), but I don't know his name either. There's the driven policeman who seems to have something about him, and guess what? Yes, I don't know who he is either.

These are just the characters I care about. There are a plethora of other characters here, there and everywhere around Monaco who add practically nothing to the show. That's poor. Mad Men were always careful to drip-feed characters into place, while The Affair started with an incredibly small core cast and only added other characters slowly. There are lessons to be learned there. And if characters are going to be added, try to give them a profile that is a bit more original than the one provided to the prodigal son here. Personally part of the appeal of Mad Men was frequently seeing good and bad from the very same characters, there is no such subtlety here.

2) Subject Matter

My wife and I had a rather odd thing happen during episode 3 of Riviera. Instead of sitting with me my wife got up, started ironing and generally getting on with things. At the end of the episode I pointed out how she had been busy, and asked if she wanted me to keep the episode on our Sky+ box for her to watch later. At that point she admitted that she didn't like it.

I thought about it for a while and realised that this isn't a show for everyone. Mad Men threw power, sexism, affairs, broken families and nostalgia for the 1960s into their mix. The Affair threw a compelling lead character with a troubled past, consequences upon all the characters from the actual affair. Going a bit further back Prison Break had the underlying theme of family loyalty and fighting injustice, while Homeland explored national loyalty, self-belief and betrayal (of all kinds). I'd say they're pretty universal themes. Throw those up against international banking and the art world. Hmm... not really comparable.

(In a nice irony for a show that I think is trying too hard to make a clever point about dodgy financing there is a line towards the end of the credits which points out that the production receives tax breaks for filming in France, which personally I quite enjoy.)

3) "We speak English over 'ere"

No, I'm not being completely ignorant. For a show based in Monaco I would expect characters to speak French. If you're going to dumb it down for the audience and people like myself who can't speak French, then have everyone speak English. Not the odd line in French, but then have them speaking in English again a moment later annoys me absolutely no end. This was the precise reason why Marie Calvet was my least favourite character in Mad Men, due to her random switching between speaking French and English.

4) Sudden and Extreme Violence

Self-harming daughter with a pair or scissors sticking out of her arm? Check. Girl being solicited in a car suddenly stabbing someone in the eye? Check. That isn't for me. Ever. I'm just not a big fan of violence, I'm especially not so when it comes out of nowhere. There's nothing wrong with bad things being merely implied instead of brutally shown.

There are some things that Riviera does well. I think Julia Stiles holds the show together as well as possible, the ex-wife/matriarch makes things a bit interesting (I do wonder somewhat what would have happened if they had made her the axis of the show instead), and the setting is fantastic. However overall there are too many avenues that appear to lead nowhere. I'm probably going to stick with the show for the remainder of series one as I'm halfway through it now, but I hope that they choose to wrap it up cleanly. I think one series of this will be sufficient unless something significant changes.