Monday, May 31, 2010

Friday in Rye

The train line from Brighton to Ashford may not be one of the great railway journeys of the world, but it is quietly impressive, passing thorough the South Downs before hugging the coastline between Eastbourne and Hastings. Given the final station, it is definitely better to travel than arrive.

Last Friday I boarded a train to Rye, where I'd arranged to meet an old schoolfriend. I was looking forward to the journey and congratualted myself when I found an empty table seat by the window, but then I was joined by this man:

I'd seen him minutes earlier, sprawled horizontally across a bench. He was in his 60s, with a distinctive leather trilby and a shirt that was unbuttoned down to the navel. If I'd had any sense, I wouldn't have picked the one seat in the carriage where he could assume a similar position.

At first he seemed harmless enough, nodding off within seconds of leaving Lewes. A few people glanced nervously in our direction and I felt slightly superior for not being fazed by my companion. What was their problem? He was just a harmless old drunk, looking for a nice comfy seat.

We arrived at Eastbourne and a speaker announced: "BING BONG. THIS IS EASTBOURNE. WE ARE NOW AT EASTBOURNE. PLEASE CHANGE HERE FOR..." At which point my companion suddenly bolted upright, as if he'd received an electric shock:

"Eastbourne? I want Ashford. There are THOUSANDS in Ashford. Thousands. I don't 'ave to worry. Ah'll be alright. Ah've got money and there's more in Ashford." I couldn't tell who he was talking to, but years of listening to ruddy-faced men who stank of rum had taught to avoid eye contact at all costs.

"D'you smoke?" It was a direct question. I couldn't just ignore him. I remember a man in London asking me the same question years ago and when I explained that I'd just given up, he shouted "I asked for a cigarette, not your fucking life story!"

I said no. He stared for a few seconds and announced "I smoke green weed. Green weed." I barely acknowledged him and returned to my newspaper, hoping that my companion would go back to sleep, but he had other ideas.

On the opposite seats were a teenage girl and boy. The girl had one of the most absurdly posh faces that I've ever seen, with a long nose and small, pouty lips, like a young Penelope Keith. It was a face that said "Cripes, I hear old Squeaky Dawson's been drummed out of the lacrosse team!" It was not the sort of face that would endear itself to my companion. He stared at her.

"I don't like you. I don't like you at all." Now he was becoming a nuisance.

"I don't mind...errr...hmmm...errr...yeah, but paedophiles...PAEDOPHILES! I'd shoot 'em. BANG! With a shotgun. Fuck 'em. Whoops. Sorry. can't say that."

At this point he spat on the seat, narrowly missing me. His eyes closed for a few seconds, then he suddenly leant forward and looked accusingly at me.

"Paaeedddophiles..." He gurgled like Gollum and started to retch. I didn't have a change of clothes, so changing seats was probably the best course of action, but the stubborn part of me refused to move and like an idiot, I subjected myself to a further 20 minutes of madness

Half an hour later, I was in the beer garden of The George in Rye, drinking a pint of Harvey's, getting slowly sunburned. I have know my friend since I was 12 and in some ways we have led parallel lives, growing up as cuckoos in the nests of working class families. Our parents didn't understand how they'd given birth to sons who liked classical music and had an absurd interest in European royalty, but to their credit they encouraged us.

In my friend's case, when he started drawing pictures of violins at the age of five, his parents responded by arranging for him to have music lessons. They weren't pushy, upwardly-mobile parents. Indeed, their idea of a good night out was playing darts at the British Legion, but perhaps they'd had thwarted ambitions in their youth and didn't want to repeat history. My friend ended up being taught by someone who'd trained with Joachim, who was a friend of Brahms.

His parents did everything they could to encourage their son's talent. On a caravan holiday in Hayling Island, the whole family dutifully sat through a live broadcast of Schoenberg's Survivor from Warsaw, oblivious to the fact that it had nothing to do with the violin repertoire.

My friend began a music degree, but he found his fellow music students too insular. When he met some students from the Yehudi Menuin School who didn't know who the leader of the Labour Party was, he quit and started a BSc in Sociology. When he graduated, my friend stumbled into business publishing and within seven years, he was earning a basic salary of £40,000.

At this point my friend went through a crisis. He'd blagged his way into a job that he had no interest or expertise in and to his surprise, he kept getting promoted. With each promotion, he felt increasingly unreal and was depressed by the ease with which he could pretend to be something he wasn't.

One day, my friend handed in his notice. Next, he sold his flat in Twickenham for £120,000, paid off his mortgage and bought another flat in Kent for £60,000. Since then, he has earned a living by playing the fiddle in bands at folk festivals. He is happy.

For those of us who don't have Grade 8 violin and 50% equity on our property, life can be rather more challenging, but the principal remains the same. Do we risk pursuing happiness at the possible expense of hard-won achievements, or should we be grateful for what we have?


Motherhood The Final Frontier said...

hm. that's a hard one, and made harder by the question of whether one has children and a spouse to support or not. I'd hazard that it's never worth staying at something that makes you actively unhappy in order to maintain the status quo, but is it worth giving up a great deal of material comfort in order to pursue a dream that may only be a symbol for something else? That needs to be very well thought through when there are others to consider, especially if another adult is required to make a personal sacrifice or give up a proportion of their own dream in order to do it.
Is there a specific idea here? Or was it just a general question?

Steerforth said...

A bit of both. I work hard to earn very little and worry that the best years of my life are being wasted. If my family were blissfully happy, then I could justify my choices, but my wife is frustrated by the drudgery of her daily life and my oldest son behaves like a caged animal (my youngest son is very happy).

Sometimes I wonder if we should sell the house and buy a rural property with enough space to be semi self-sufficient, so that we, or rather I, wasn't a wage slave and had more time.

The one stumbling block is that we love Lewes and the people here are lovely. There's no easy answer.

Art said...

I was along for a funny drunk story and somehow ended up at your rather poignant question.

I wish I knew the answer; I'm currently waffling over something rather similar.

Brett said...

My wife and I worked in retail into our mid-thirties, I in book stores and she in outdoor clothing, with nothing to show for it.

A downturn in the late '80's made us take stock. We wanted refuge from the merciless tumult of the business world.

I had read a book by Ravi Batra, The Great Depression of 1990's. Batra observed that government jobs tended to remain secure in hard times.

When the bookstore chain I worked for was bought out, and the new owners wanted to reduce my hours as an assistant manager from 40 to 16 per week, I applied for a clerk position at the county public library, and got it.

Right off I earned a little more than I had at the book store, and I also got health care, sick leave and a pension upon retirement, none of which I had in retail. My wife, who has a degree in English, found a position with the Florida Legislature as an editor in Bill Drafting, with similar benefits.

I had to go back to school to get a master's degree in Information Studies to qualify as a professional librarian. I was in my forties by then, but I managed to do it, one class at a time and still working full-time.

Now I am a librarian, and my wife is a bill drafter. We aren't getting rich, but we have secure incomes, health care, and pensions when we retire.

I don't know how this would translate for you in the UK, but this was my solution.

Steerforth said...

That should be a lesson to us all. Some people think that it's too late to change direction in your 40s, but with over half of your working life ahead, can you afford not to? Brett, your example is an inspiration.

In my case, children make things difficult. Until my wife can start earning some money, my options are limited.

I don't mean to give the impression that I dislike my job. On the whole I enjoy it and have a lot of respect for my boss, but it takes up such a large chunk of my life and pays so little.

Brett said...

I realize that my solution isn't really what you were talking about. We looked into going back to the land early on, and decided that we would be happier as city-dwellers.

But now there is the "locavore" movement, and local farms and micro-breweries are proliferating. It could be a good time to catch the wave.

Puts me in mind of a book by one of your forgotten authors, Corn in Egypt, by Warwick Deeping.

The Poet Laura-eate said...

What a philosophical posting.

If it's any help I've just read the best psychological guide to living I've so far come across (and I've read a lot of pop-psych books)It's called 'Steering By Starlight' by Martha Beck and I feel truly inspired to live by at least some of it to encourage my best possible destiny to be fulfilled.

In my case it was not so much a case of not choosing marriage and parenthood but of these factors not choosing me (well so far anyway, though I can't say I'm fussed about motherhood, having seen many of today's offpring!).

If I have one regret, it's that I spent far too much of my 20s being lovelorn about romances not working out the way I wanted them to and so many books promised me they would, when what I should have been doing is earning as much money as I possibly could and trying to get myself on the property ladder, once I had overcome the legacies of a dysfunctional childhood, so at least I could be lovelorn in security rather than poverty.

I am now living in a Park Home, but strangely find myself happier than I have ever been, bar that elusive full-time relationship and remaining dreams to be fulfilled, not least of which giving up the day job is way up there!

At least you know that your financial situation will change and things will become easier (hopefully) when your youngest starts school and Mrs Steerforth can carve a new career. Though meantime that drunken Wise Man on the train did promise there was thousands to be had in Ashford! So I suppose that just leaves the fulfilment of dreams to worry about!