In January 2003, during a winter of hibernation at my Parents house following a year living in Australia, I decided to take some freelance work based in Gloucestershire. The offer was for a few weeks work for the main regional newspaper, based in Cheltenham, with a view to going permanent.With a paucity of work being offered at the time, I decided to load up the car with my belongings and drive down to the South West where I resided in a bed and breakfast on the outskirts of town owned by the friendly Liz and John.
Cheltenham is the kind of town where nothing really happens, except for a nightly display of testosterone-fuelled adolescent car racing around the one-way system after dark - the manifestation of boredom among the feast of fools, one expects. So humdrum was the nightlife, that I can't recall one instance of going out for a drink.
Although picturesque in a middle England kind of way, and only just rescued from mediocrity by its fetching classical architecture, and the splendour of nearby Cotswolds, my first week in the town coincided with what literally was a sudden and unwelcome dip in my spirits, no doubt a symptom having lived in vibrant Sydney the year prior.
The job of course was notable for its averageness, with no difference to the types of stories I'd been working on back in the north; the local butcher's prized cumberland ring, fox stuck up a tree, a local man's shower not working and the ensuing fury at the company who manufactured it. I didn't much mind the long hours as I knew no soul anyway, so needn't have concerned myself with turning down a barrage of social invites.
But the editor, Anita Syvret, an incisive and perspicacious lady with short cropped blonde hair, and the first woman to edit a regional daily since 1939, had faith in me and was keen for me to flourish in my new environment. The other reporters were pretty much as one would expect from these parts; middle-class, white, straight and pleasant, but the problem arose when, a few weeks after arriving, a job I was eventually offered on a full-time basis was explained.
It would have meant a move from the central office to become roving reporter 40 minutes down the road in the small historic and affluent town of Cirencester. In Roman times, Cirencester was the second largest town after London. But now it was a sleepy market town with only 17,000 inhabitants, notable for its agricultural college (with its plumy voiced students), horsey-type elderly residents, and for also having the highest number of millionaires in the UK; a kind of English Beverly Hills, if you will. Actually, one of my first vox pops was about that very subject, and on a cold February day in an old parka, I stood on a street corner clutching a Dictaphone in my mittened hand which I hovered under the snouts of any passers-by in the hope they'd give me a quote. “FAK OOOORRRF” was, I distinctly recall, one of the first, and best, responses I got to my question by a grey haired old woman in a tweed trench coat with teal rouffled blouse.
It’s rural isolation also heralded terrible flashbacks to my first year at University, in Glamorgan. The sight of the Welsh Valleys, or anywhere gloomily rural, has since stirred lugubrious reveries to that dark year of exile. So making my first drive to Cirencester through its twisting country roads and unfamiliar hills I find myself shaking with nerves, and gasping for breath. What was it about this place which had spun me into an attack of panic? “Calm down. It's not that bad”, MH said hopefully, who accompanied me on that first visit. Yes, perhaps Wills and Harry may come here to play polo, but they have the luxury of escaping back to London when they wish, as do the Kate Winslets, Anne Robinsons, and Kate Moss' of this world. I, however, wouldn't be afforded this luxury. That was it, the sudden improbability of easy escape once signing on the dotted line had instilled in me a treacherous sense of forboding which had enveloped my soul so rapidly on arriving in town.
So with the prospect of working solitary out of a small pokey office in a cobbled back street, feasting on the scraps of farming issues and WI meetings, the harbinger of doom in me questioned my ability to acclimatise to a place like this, having grown accustomed to cosmopolitan living. More importantly, could I rally sufficient joy from writing such monotonous drivel? The passion, I convinced myself, would diminish, and the depression proliferate.
So I left, never to return. Back at my parents, I took some freelance work at the Liverpool Echo, a sizzling parochial tome in which young hungry journos like me can cover murders,underground gangster activity, and crazed gun-toting madmen threatening to jump of churches. But alas I was on the grave-yard shift mainly, so while middle-aged subs dozed in reclining chairs, I planned my next big escape, this time to London. The rest is history.
So when I now have my off-days here in the capital, wishing I was elsewhere, I only have to pause and think back to Cirencester, and that cumberland ring, or that cussing old harridan, and count my lucky stars that I’m here, in London, in the fast lane; living, loving and continually being inspired.