Monday, December 20, 2004

Only Londoner in the village

When people ask where I’m from I say Oxford, even though I’ve never lived closer than 15 miles from the city. If pushed, I’ll say I’m from Thame, where I’ve lived longest, even though I’ve lived in Aylesbury for about five years. Most people have heard of Oxford, some of Aylesbury, few of Thame. Oxford is convenient shorthand for the region I’m from.

I find visiting Thame an anxious affair, walking down the High Street (the widest in the world, or something) is a rat run through the past. I find myself staring into the eyes of people my age trying to peel back about 15 years, through the wrinkles, fat and babies, to work out whether I went to school with them or not.

Not that I’ve ever bumped into anyone. What would I say if I did? Do I give bland platitudes? Potted histories? Reminisces? Or is it time to deconstruct shared pasts and really get down to it. I’m more confident, outgoing and, obviously, funnier than I was at school, do I return to the ‘type’ they once knew? I’m reasonably successful in what I do; do I tell these people? If I do, then will they think, as I do, how the bloody hell has he getting away with that, unless they’re proportionally more successful than I am, which they probably are. And what if they read this site… which I know some do.

Christmas, of course, increases the likelihood of an encounter as people return home to their family. Jacques Perretti’s article in The Guardian’s Guide on Saturday promised to empathise with my predicaments as he described what it was like to return home for Christmas. What’s more, Perretti is from Beaconsfield, not that far from where we live.

What started out with me thinking that I could just post the link and tell people that this was how I feel, ended with me wanting to hunt the dog down. Perretti paints an utterly fictitious picture of his home town. He has to give his train ticket to a ticket inspector “BY HAND”, he gets into a Nissan Micra Mini-cab driven by an old school chum (whose life consists of three marriages and a burnt down hotel, allegedly). He makes claims about people driving around in White GTi’s, that Christmas in the Home Counties is stuck in the 50’s and that the in-town entertainment consists of fighting and setting fire to each other. His final claim is that on returning to his local pub, the answer his old school mates give to the question how are things round here is “Alright if it weren’t for the Pakis.” The article was illustrated with a cartoon of three men drinking pints in Ku Klux Klan hoods.

I don’t know which train Perretti caught to get to this version of Beaconsfield but if it departed from platform 9 and three-quarters I wouldn’t be surprised. Beaconsfield is very much like Thame, a beautiful town, affluent, prime commuter belt. Broadly speaking the inhabitants are well travelled, educated, and liberal. These are all luxuries a town’s affluence affords, sadly this doesn’t satisfy Perreti’s jaundice view. There may not be the ethnic mix of, say, Brixton but the reasons are economic, not social. OK, so it hasn’t got a gay fetish Grime Garage club night, but it really isn’t the other world he paints.

Perretti paints a fictitious world – stations have automatic barriers, the mini-cabs outside the station are identical to those that sit outside every London club on a Saturday night. I’ve not seen a white GTi in years, nor a fight or fire. As for overt racism, I’m not naive enough to think that it doesn’t happen, but I live in the region, and don’t see it. He was either unfortunate… or lying.

Presumably this distortion is hiding the subtext that he wants everyone to know that he must be cool because he’s living in London. The kind of person who gets excited by going to work in his jeans, and living next door to black people (they’re so real… and nice…), he’s a Londoner because he can describe the tube map by the name of the line, not its colour on the map. Perreti wants us to believe he’s escaped from some middle class ghetto, forgetting that it’s he’s a product of the town. It seems that home is where the heart is, but not, necessarily, where your brand is.


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