Wednesday, 6 June 2012

The F-word - and why I struggle so much with it

It’s National Running Day today. Apparently. Well, in the US, anyway. First Wednesday of June: so make a note for June 5, 2013. I really should be writing about running. Ah well. Another time.
I am still running, by the way – oh yes, training is going alreight. But I’ll bore you with my progress, with what’s hindering it and what’s facilitating it, another time. Having written what I wrote last week, I need to add this bit. The general idea is that it’ll help, but then again it might not. Ah well.

Following on from my 7S post, I’m going to expand on my relationship with Portishead (the town, not the band) and the Bristol area – which is where I’ve lived for the past thirteen years…

…but which I nonetheless still struggle to call ‘home’. Indeed, when I talk about “going home” I’m normally on the M5, the A42, the M42 or the M1 and travelling North. Mrs K does not appreciate my failure to label the town in which we live with our two gorgeous boys as ‘home’ and has made that unequivocally clear to me on many occasions. That doesn’t make it any easier for me, mind…

…even now, when I hear the word ‘home’ I think of Sheffield. Normally it’s 13 Dover Road, sometimes 18 and sometimes other places in the Hunter’s Bar area. Or Bramall Lane, at a push.

Now for sure, [current address removed] [most tweets give it away, mind] is the house, the building in which I truly feel at home, in spite of the fact that there’s still tons of stuff I can never find in the kitchen. In terms of building, that’s straightforward. If, however, we allow ‘home’ to encompass the surrounding area… oh that’s where it gets tricky. Boy oh boy oh boy…

Let me make one thing clear: Portishead has been good to me. I have built strong relationships here; I live in a house which I love, opposite a field where the kids can roam and play; and we live within walking distance of a decent school. I have enjoyed many hours of playing tennis and cricket; I have commuted reasonable distances to jobs I enjoy or have enjoyed. So… where’s the flaw?

Well, quite possibly in the previous paragraph. “I have built strong relationships here”… hmmm, notice the lack of the F-word. Sure, I’ve made friends here: but not as many as you’d think, considering I’ve been here since 1999. This is not my most controversial statement, in so much that it is something I have shared with Karen on numerous occasions. In doing so I would comment that there is nobody here to whom I can say “Remember that time when we were younger and…”, to which she has understandably replied that you can’t do that with all your friends like I do with people with whom I went to school in Italy. Besides, there is only so much becherovka a man can drink. And hey, if all your friendships had to be rooted in your teenage years, FriendsReunited would have fared a darn sight better. So… why the reticence to acknowledge people who have been kind to me, good to me as ‘friends’?

You know what, I may have figured this out recently. More often than not, there is no real common ground in those relationships to play the part of a shared experience. Let me indulge further. I hesitate not to call friends people whom I rarely ever see but whom I have met at Bruce Springsteen concerts. There is a starting point of appreciation of the topic in question, a mutual and unspoken understanding about why we travel to the other side of the world to see him perform when others turn off the radio when his records are played, that creates a similar connection. You don’t have to establish a common platform from nothing: you know from the off that you share certain values (yes, ‘values’), that you will have lived similar, if not identical, experiences. I was made all the more aware of this when I started using Twitter more assiduously earlier in the year, not least to engage with fellow Sheffield United supporters. There are #twitterblades out there whose real names I don’t even know, let alone what they do for a living or how old they are. But that doesn’t matter because there already is common ground in understanding what it means to be a Blade, why we could never be anything else… and, more often than not, of being Sheffielders. I touched on this back in April and, to a lesser extent, in my 7S post: and I suspect that you either fully understand where I’m coming from or think I’m a complete and utter nutter. I doubt there is much scope for anything in between.

Add to this that I’m at an age where lives change more than usual, people move away, get married and have kids and you may begin to understand where my challenge lies right now. I made some very good friends through cricket, but I haven’t played in years so, even when I see them the strength of that common ground has declined, for even I can only rant on about experiences from 2004 for so long. One of them left Portishead: he didn’t travel far but his life has changed more than the mileage may suggest, so I don’t enjoy the opportunity to share my love for music, recorded or live, as much as I did previously. That’s life: I fully understand and accept. There is similarly one cricket friend whom I see maybe once, twice a month (so not a huge deal), with whom we don’t just talk about my 53 versus Twyford House but also about football, politics and just about anything in between, whom I would never regard as anything but a true friend. But I don’t develop relationships at the school gates the way my wife does: I think that’s a gender thing and have no shame in stating so. I go to school to take and collect my son: it’s not part of my social life. There are people there whom I like, who have been guests of ours and us of them, always genuinely very pleasant affairs and I am happy with exchanging pleasantries with them: but these don’t develop into more meaningful conversations, so after the pleasantries I get back to my smartphone. Yes, I’d help them out in a flash and I know they would us, as was shown very clearly last winter when I was convalescing post-epilepsy op and Karen went and fractured her ankle the day after I came home from hospital. Surely that’s enough to class them as ‘friends’?

Well, you’d think so, so much so that I feel guilty about my inability to do so. It’s not them, it’s me – and, potentially, what others have classed as my tendency to ‘overthink’ things. I don’t think that’s possible: one can only ever ‘underthink’, surely. And I, for one, just can’t ignore the lack of true common ground upon which to build such a friendship. I can’t have silent conversations based on inherent, implicit understandings: everything has to be laid out, explained and placed into context, a context they may or may not understand, let alone agree with. None of that means that I can’t have enjoyable conversations or that I don’t look forward to them. It just makes it hard for me to use the F-word the way I find it far easier to do with Springsteen fans, Sheffield folk or Sheffield United supporters before even finding out their name.

“But don’t you have kids to talk about?” comes the cry from the galleries. Yes, we do. Is that a common, uniting subject? Tricky. At best. Kids can unite or divide. It’s not a common subject as such: each parent talks about their own kids, their own experiences. There are often touchpoints, for sure: but these can all too easily become blue touch paper. It is hard to talk about your own kids without starting to compare and contrast, whereas talking about football, music or whatever you and your friends talk about is a more shared experience. Even when you disagree on which is U2’s finest album, you are looking at things from the same side. If you’ve got kids, you know where I’m coming from on this one. As a parent, I’ve learnt a lot from talking to other parents, especially parents of children older than mine who can offer a more detached yet experienced view. But let’s not pretend it can’t be a double-edged sword: questions like “And how’s your kid doing at school?” come loaded. I should know, I’ve also asked them. We all have.

So: Springsteen, Sheffield, Sheffield United. Three ready-made bases for a good chat. In fact, broaden that to music fans, Yorkshire folk or football fans: I’m not that narrow-minded. For whatever reason, I’ve come across very few of those in my twelve years here. One such person ticks two of those boxes: little surprise that I felt comfortable in dropping by unannounced to lend him a book earlier this year, no more so that I ended up spending two hours there and having a lovely, natural, easy-flowing conversation. I’d probably not seen him for about six years, other than from the other side of a road to wave. But that didn’t matter: we could talk Yorkshire, we could talk football (I can’t help it that he’s a Burnley fan), we could talk. Simple.Oh, there is a fourth category. Doesn’t begin with S, mind. Colleagues, co-workers, work… nah, no S. Anyway: yes, I do rate colleagues amongst friends. Again, there is that common platform, be it during our shared time in my current job or similar experiences working for organisations of a similar nature. That instant recognition… it obviously helps when the topic moves on to rock or football, but the connection is still there. Working in marketing alongside sales reps in the technology sector can mean long and challenging sales cycles, and the scars and successes you pick up along the way don’t disappear in any great hurry. Afghanistan it ain’t, but bonds are still established. When it’s with good guys, why would you not build upon them?

Avid readers of the 7S post will recall that Scriptures topped the list. And there are dozens of people from our church whose company I enjoy, with whom I can have pleasant conversations. But similarly I have to apply the handbrake, ensure I don’t say anything incriminating. I take my relationship with God very seriously and have done throughout my entire life, yet I’m far more likely to listen to Kula Shaker than Graham Kendrick, or read books about Sheffield than the Christian faith. In that, I am in a distinct minority. There is a chance that, beyond the pearly gates, I will pay for this: there are certainly some CDs in my collection for which I accept eternal punishment. In the meantime, maybe I should downgrade from evangelical back to protestant: I’m so much better at protesting than I am at evangelising. So the handbrake stays on as I watch my every word: you can draw your own conclusions about what that means for those relationships. In fact, somewhat bizarrely the person with whom I am most likely to let my guard down is the church’s former leader: must be because he’s a Geordie.

By the way: outside of family, I don’t actually know that many people in Sheffield. And most of the ones I do are friends of the family, people who were around my relatives when I was around them. You just have to trust my perverse mind when I tell you I wouldn’t struggle to build friendships there by building them on those common foundations. Even with t’other lot, Wednesday supporters… even their antagonism to Unitedites like me, by itself, creates a common platform. Which brings me to one example: one Michael Streets, who used to play football with my uncles for Sheffield Centralians. He was even Best Man for one of them at their double wedding: Rog, I think, but folk have been getting that mixed up for years. Not surprising, given that all eyes were on yours truly, the cute little page boy! Anyroad back then I’d see Mick at training: these days I see him in the pub (Prince of Wales, Ecclesall Road; Saturdays, 6pm). I can go years without seeing Mick, but when I do I reach out and give him a good old man hug. We are both Sheffielders; we are both football men, even though he is “one of them”; and we even share common medical traits which further strengthen that foundation. I wouldn’t hesitate for a split second to call Mick a true, lifetime friend. Now Karen’s only met him once at my cousin’s 21st and that could have gone better, as he referred to Bristol as “in Wales”…heck, I giggled! (And still do, seven years later)
(I did share these feelings with Mick when I last saw him last August. He looked me in the eye and told me to “F@€% off”, thereby proving my point exactly. Top lad, our Michael. As I tell Karen, "the world would be a better place if there were more Mick Streets in it")

As you read all this gobbledygook, as well as previous mutterings, you may be developing the feeling that I need to cast away my rose-tinted glasses and look at Sheffield for what it is: my hometown, a lovely city, but not a ball around my foot which should hamper my social relationships. You may be crying out at the screen that I never lived an independent life there: I never sought a job there, I never paid council tax and moaned at how it was being spent there… ‘all’ I ever did was spend my holidays and student days there and always in the protected environment of my grandparents’ house. Lord knows, if I were in your shoes it’s what I’d be doing, probably with “Have a word wi’yourself!” as the opening line. Lovely thing is logic, isn’t it? Works best when looking at other people, at things that don’t impact your life. But I’m struggling here…

…and have been doing all my life. Still, until recently I’d struggled all my life with my Italian heritage. Only six years ago did I go from ‘dislike’ to ‘tolerance’; only in recent weeks have I gone from ‘tolerance’ to ‘pride’. I’m still a Brit, a Yorkshireman and a Sheffielder, but I have developed the ability to be proud of what Italy and my Italian relatives and friends contributed to my make-up. I might even write a post about that later this month: that and about how it’s not about Italy and Italians really, rather about the community, the area, the locals. Because those are the people that matter most, in general terms. Which is why it’s about Sheffield, for me: the area, the locals. And I don’t just mean the bars.
Not that I’m adding an S to the 7S, mind – that works as it is. Anyway, 36 years in and I’ve finally got to grips with my Italian heritage. Give it another 36 and I may cast away these glasses. Which glasses? Exactly.

As I said, I do feel bad about feeling this way towards such a plethora of good people. I am not proud about it and, believe you me, derive no pleasure from it, merely a disturbing feeling of discomfort. If you are amongst those, if you feel I should call you a friend, you are probably right: I apologise for my anal over-analysis which I’ve spelt out here and I hope my complex, rather than suspicious, mind will get there sooner rather than later. Just remember this: It’s not you, it’s me. And that’s why I still call Sheffield home: because I would feel happy to walk into any pub and have a chat with whoever’s at the bar. I would feel happy in counting the number of players on each side in an Endcliffe Park kickabout and ask/volunteer to even things up if required, as I did countless times as a kid and a teenager, when my sole (no pun intended) (no, seriously!) preoccupation in choosing shoes would that I’d always be wearing something in which I could play football. Because sometimes you’re not too fussed about going where everybody knows your name: you just want to be somewhere where even strangers know who you are. Cheers.
(Just a grumpy, mardy Northerner? Just another of those folk who hark on about how much friendlier people are Up North, where t’dooers are never locked, compared to Darn Saath? But then beggar off Darn Saath fer work? Dunno. I’m probably still wearing tglasses. It’s best if tha tells me.)

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