I met an old, very dear friend today for a power walk on Hampstead Heath. Gruelling schedules for us both meant we only had an hour to hang out, so we met at Kentish Town and powered up to the top of Parliament Hill and back down via the men's pond. We even managed a quick cuppa in the cafe. It just shows what you can achieve in an hour if you put your mind to it.
We were incredibly lucky with the weather. It rained all morning, and all evening, but for that hour, the skies cleared, the sun burst through the clouds and the rain on all the trees shimmered like rhinestones.
We talked as fast as we walked, catching up on something like twenty years of memories. She looked well. My beard, I felt, rather self-consciously, must have looked very grey to her. She told me to relax. Her hair was sponsored by Pantene: Same colour as Davina McCall, apparently. My shoes squeaked. I felt a bit odd about that as well. Funny the things that suddenly matter when you haven't seen someone for so long.
We're exact astrological twins. We were both born on August 8th, 1974, so neither of us get to whinge about getting old. We're in it together. She has two children and lives in Wellingborough. She's posh. Her son's friends tell him it's not cool to be posh in Wellingborough. Fortunately she was once spotted shopping in Aldi, which means she's not posh after all.
We talked about the music school in Northamptonshire. We were in the same choir and she told me about a lot of people I hadn't thought about in an age. There was one group of lads at the music school who were older than us. It always seemed to me that they held the world in the palm of their hands. They were startlingly cool. Brilliantly musical. The kind of lads we all assumed would just become fabulous. They'd be leading jazz musicians, or play in rock bands, or become prime ministers.
..It turns out that life was a little cruel to them all and they struggled immensely.
We talked a lot about what it means to come from Northamptonshire, with its slightly inward-looking mentality. I hear so much talk about equality these days, usually in relation to ethnic minorities, but it struck me today, after our little chat, that the most disadvantaged people in this country, aren't necessary the ones who live in sink estates in London... Actually, it's the kids who live in small towns miles away from opportunity, and more crucially, miles away from aspiration. If you live on a London Estate, there's probably a theatre within a mile. There are fancy houses you can look at and say "one day." There are clubs, and initiatives.
If you come from Northamptonshire and you're white, people will assume you're middle class. The accent there isn't easily identifiable so society will assume you're rich. And yet the nearest theatre to where I grew up was 20 miles away. The nearest cinema was five miles away. If it weren't for the music school I would have lived in a cultural vacuum.
If a kid from Northants does well at school, he or she may well get into a university, but straight away (and this definitely happened to me) will find themselves potentially hugely intimidated by what Alison today described as "London confidence." The kids from the cities always seemed to know more about everything. They'd been there, done that, tried that, had that. Their godparents were people like David Jason. Their parents were academics, painters, actors... They talked in slang about things like drugs. They oozed confidence.
The ones who'd been to public schools were even more confident, and even the ones who'd come from London estates had street smarts, which gave them a certain intimidating je ne sais quoi. It would have been extremely easy for me to have gone under and, sadly, it seems that many of my Northamptonshire contemporaries, people far more talented than me, were swallowed up by the system and spat out.
So, actually, if you're looking for people to try to encourage in life, perhaps it's worth occasionally looking to little towns and villages across the country which are sometimes more difficult to escape than any skin colour, poverty-stricken background, gender or sexuality.