Odyssey, Pt 1.


I left England on December 22nd 2011. My day would start in Millbrook Rd East, Southampton, and by evening would finish at College Avenue Pittsburgh, USA.

I can’t tell that story without telling the story of my time in Southampton. This is the move from the North of England, and some of the reasons for it.

July 27th, 1997

I left my parent’s home in Trinity Lane, York, the beautiful walled city of which I now have deeply nostalgic, postcard memories, to take the train to Southampton. I would go on to live in Southampton for almost 15 years, which is the longest I have remained anywhere. And I went there pretty much on the flimsiest of notions. Basically, I’m going to blame my dear friend P, whom shall remain mostly anonymous as he’s very private and I’m happy to respect that.

I was not a stranger to the city. I’d stayed for an abortive semester at the Southampton Institute (Now Solent University) from late ’93 to spring ’94. I didn’t love Southampton, it was, at the time, a place I knew. A place to go, not a place to end up. As I wrote, It stands as the place I lived longest during a nomadic life, even if I managed no less than 12 residence moves in the time I was there. I’ve been in the United States over a decade now, and I’ve never really missed it, and yet I think about it constantly. I look up the roads on Google street view, peruse various Facebook history groups for the town (the only good use of FB, I think), so clearly the city left its mark.

My first impression, in September 1993, was not good. I had visited the boat show with my parents in 1986, and thought it a dull, ugly place. Concrete, dreary, grimy high street, docks and cranes, a sliver of waterfront. It had the shit bombed out of it in the war, and it looked it.

With my mum at the boat show

It was little different six years later, although I do remember the hull of a freighter towering over what must have been the Eastern docks, reminding me of the purpose of the place. Southampton hides its maritime industry and heritage remarkably well. You would be surprised at the number of plummy home counties boys that go to Solent because they think it’s on the coast. It’s basically Hull, without the benefit of being in Yorkshire.

I took a walk with my Mum through East Park, noting it was full of homeless people (I never saw as many as I did that Sunday…) And yet, as a student with little interest in academic work, but plenty of interest in everything else, it wasn’t a bad place. I had a fun time, until it was no longer fun (because I had to drop out) and I left in May 1994, fairly sure I’d have no reason to return, unless I would somehow be buying a boat in the future.

A close friend – P – from Sixth Form college had been in Southsea (up the coast, in the locally verboten territory of the demon-haunted Portsmouth, very much Mordor to Southampton’s Shire, or so the locals say) and was set to enter nursing school in Southampton. My friend from college days, P would frequently write to me (remember that?) and in March 1996 I decided to pay him a visit. I scrounged the 35 quid bus fare from my Mum, plus some beer money, and I got the National Express bus to Southampton, via Birmingham. It took all fucking day. I remember going through Doncaster, having never seen it, and never wishing to do so again. It was the Monday after the ’96 Brazilian Grand Prix and I had a copy of that day’s Telegraph with the race report on the back page.

I got in late evening (around 9, I think), had no mobile back then, and had to find a pay phone to call P and let him know I’d arrived. I knew the town, so started off toward the area of Newtown (where he lived) and encountered him half way, coming to meet me. We hit the beers straight away, and the night ended with a curry. That set the tone. What followed was a fairly pivotal week, psychologically. I had a good time, perhaps too good a time, because it put something in my head that didn’t quite go away: The thought that, perhaps, I could move there. It was everything I was missing – independence and a built-in social life.

I extended the trip by a day, which was all I could (money rather than time being the limiting factor), returning on a Saturday, and I fell into a pretty bad funk when I returned to York. I was depressed enough on the bus home, and it just got worse. The boredom and loneliness was really eating me up, and I was ignoring or seemingly unaware of the fact that my routine was neither helpful nor healthy for a 22yr old.

My closest friend in York at that time was Jamie; we’d been at college together (although he was a year ahead) and he was a chemistry undergraduate at the University of York. By this time he was very much doing his own thing (between a tough degree and a busy private life) and could not really give me the friendship I wanted. The effort of the long walks to and from campus in Heslington seemed to characterize my building resentment. Jamie was distant, in every way that mattered to me. It wasn’t his fault. I don’t think Jamie understood that I comprehended his struggles, especially in the rigorous second year. I felt very much like an outsider, and I had just come back from a place where I’d be treated the opposite. It was like magnetism, in retrospect. It set something in motion.

I spent my weekends volunteering at the Yorkshire Air Museum in Elvington and I had aspirations of getting my pilot’s license (and actually came close). Around this time either me or my Dad had the idea (I forget whom) I might join the RAF. I was still easily young enough, and although I didn’t possess 20/20 vision I could still enter as an officer candidate. I was, frankly, scared by the idea. I was unfit and actually quite intimidated by the prospect. That fear turned into the perception of being pushed against my wishes, so I bottled it, didn’t do the the interview and had a bit of sulky fight with the old man about it.

My dad was generous to me, paying my flight school fees (GBP55 an hour(!!), he never asked me for any of it, even when I worked) and was understandably keen that I pick a direction and do something for myself. He didn’t know how to motivate me, but didn’t recognize that If I didn’t know, there was no possibility anyone else would. He hung in there with the flying in the hope I’d get something out of it.

These things have to come from within, and a part of me felt like I’d done my time with that during a very unpleasant time in secondary Grammar school. I really thought I was finished with other people’s ideas of structure and discipline. It’s fair to say it as a delayed rebellious impulse, and I should have known better, but I wasn’t mature enough to see it.

I should have gone through with the RAF interview at the very least. I can see that now. You never know where these things lead. An older gent at the museum told me to go in, do my five years, and do what I like. He was 38, and to him it was a simple matter of pragmatism, and what’s five years, anyway? I was 22, that was nearly a quarter of my life experience. It felt like forever.

I have learnt that you can have your differences with your parents, occasionally very serious differences, but having lived their own lives, they generally know what they’re doing, even if they appear to go about it in a heavy-handed way.

In my there and then, I decided in the first instance I’d better get a job. It would give me money, something to do and get my dad off my back. My mum gave me a tip about a contract job, at BT’s call centre on Stonebow. I started 22nd April 1996. Mums always know what to do.

Stephen Richards / Telephone exchange, The Stonebow, York

This turned out to be, as they say, a good move, gaining me money and a social life that would not have been out of place at a student union. The place was a hoot; easy money, constant boozing, girls, a 22yr old’s dream. It would also enable me to visit Southampton another three times that year, in June, September, and December. Writing this now I look back and can’t understand my priorities at all, but it is what it is. People do things they don’t understand. Holding down a job is good for most people, it just gave me more money and time to piss about. The flying fell by the wayside, which I regret to this day. I flew solo, so I’ll always have that.

The June visit South was memorable as I have a specific memory of sitting in the smoking room at work the day before I left, talking to Mandy. Mandy was a very beautiful brunette I very obviously had a crush on (I think everyone fancied Mandy), and I was getting on like a house on fire with her, and of course I was about to bugger off for a week. I clearly remember lamenting this fact.

Mandy Mandy Mandy

This second visit to Southampton would go on to be as much fun as the first. There might not have been Mandy, but there was Hannah, Imogen, Karen, and Lou to distract me. No downer on return this time either, as I had something of an existence to go back to.

And so it went. I had, in a brief time, built quite the life for myself in York, I had a lot of friends, but the reality was I was spending most of my wages behind the bar at Fibbers, and going absolutely nowhere. But who cares? I was living and enjoying myself with practically zero responsibilities. The only thing I had to do was get to work on time, a rule you’d be surprised to learn accounted for many, many dismissals among my friends, oh, and don’t get shitfaced at work. Another infraction some had issues with (It’s the North, after all). Looking back, I don’t think I would have changed anything. Some of the friends I made, I still think about to this day. It was weird in a way because this part of my life in York was entirely unrelated to what had come before. I made it from scratch. All new people, all new experiences. I wasn’t especially close with some of my old college friends (although most were still around) and at this time everyone was in that transitional period between university and the world of employment. I hadn’t completed university and so could not, and probably did not care to relate to them, but that was very much on me.

Jamie had long since graduated by this time and like so many others had come back for a temporary spell to work at BT while he figured out his plans. BT was one of those word-of-mouth gigs everyone seemed to pick up at some point. It was clear to me we had grown apart. Still friendly, but he was on a different path. I don’t think he was overly keen on my indolent and somewhat townie lifestyle, and I didn’t resent him for it. Jamie appeared laid back on first appearances, but he was smart and driven. He left to do an MA in Norwich in December 1996, and I have not seen him since. We were out of touch until relatively recently.

As 1997 came around, I had some choices to make. I was drifting, I knew it, my parents knew it (holy hell did my Dad know it, because it was a source of continual friction) I was living high on the hog, getting pissed most nights, something had to change at some point, although at this time it didn’t feel urgent. I was edging towards the daft notion that moving cities would fix all this, and so I decided to spend an exploratory fortnight in Southampton, and talk to the employment agency that place my job with BT to see if they could arrange anything down South. They said yes of course, because employment agencies are universally incompetent and habitual liars, and promised me a job at the BT office in Southampton. I decided I would pitch the idea to P, make preparations to move there, visit employment agencies, talk to the bank about moving my account, all the admin… I don’t think I’d told my parents any of this, but really I just thought they’d be relieved.

I put the idea to P. Being a terrific mate, he was absolutely thrilled. I would ultimately spend all 14 days down there, and get virtually nothing done except getting pissed most days and enjoying the finest Indian food Southampton had to offer. Looking back, I think it was time well spent, because no amount of planning would avoid the work situation I encountered in my first month there. Because getting a job was so easy in York, I overestimated the efficacy of employment agencies. I worked at one a few years later, and I can happily wish they all burn in hell, assuming they don’t find gainful employment there.

P and I, May 1997, Tennyson Road, Southampton.

I don’t ever remember planning a date to move, because I didn’t plan anything then, but I also noted a hint of outstaying my welcome in Southampton, because I’d been there over a week, and it was something like my fifth visit in a year. I was no longer new, and neither were the people I’d met. The shine was wearing off. Recall that I wasn’t one of them. I wasn’t an undergraduate at nursing school, I was just some mate of P’s that was around quite a lot. Looking back, it was nothing out of the ordinary (I would been annoyed by me, tbh), but it bugged me at the time. I’d got used to being Mr. Goodtime, but that’s no more real than a holiday romance. Part of the intent behind a longer visit was to see if I could get on with these people outside of a week, despite the fact that at this point there was no plan to move in with them once I arrived. There was not, at the time, a place for me in that house.

The problem with visiting people who are essentially students is that you get the impression life is like that all the time. Beer every night in the RSH social, lazy days in the Alexandra pub (where a lunchtime pint can end at 11pm) Of course, it is not. It can’t last. The other consideration is the illusion you’re one of them, because they like you and appear to accept you. You are not, there will always be a distance between you and persons of a collective experience you were never part of. P would probably tell me this was all in my head, and he might be right, but it was how I saw it. It did not discourage me because it was part of the reason I’d spent more time there.

My plan was lazily simple. Figure out somewhere to live, get to Southampton, and pick up contract work at BT, effectively translating my existence from York to Southampton, with minimal effort. Hah.

Things never really came to a head with my Parents back in York. They never put any pressure on me. They knew I wasn’t really up to much but working and pissing my wages up the wall. I just announced It was time to go, I was 23 by now, long past the time I should be living at home. I remember my mum’s look of surprise and – I think – disappointment, as if it were a resolution, but not necessarily what she wanted. I couldn’t tell, and we never spoke of it later. My mother had a way of seeing things though. I cannot comprehend my lack of motivation and direction with the benefit of hindsight, and I did not have a hope in hell of understanding it when I was 23.

It all went off with little fanfare. I handed in my notice, after a marathon of overtime to get a fighting fund in case of problems on the flip-side (this is called foreshadowing, what I’m doing here) and I was alone with my plans. Nobody tried to stop me, nobody had any reason to. It was what I wanted. My sisters were supportive, and I think they thought I would inevitably get pulled into London’s gravity well once Southampton pinched out (nearly happened once or twice) but I had little intention of anywhere but sunny Southampton.

I had my leaving do at work, got suitably hammered (although I do remember having a bit of a flat day, I was tired and grumpy) and I have this memory of being in The Blue Bell on Fossgate and telling someone I was leaving for Southampton and them looking at me, wide-eyed, saying “What do you want to go down there for?” With the benefit of hindsight, I should not have left York. Not at that time. It wasn’t the answer, but at that time I didn’t fully comprehend the question. The moment had a definite feel of ‘not with a bang, but a whimper’. This was it.

On the train to Southampton with all my belongings in a brown and black holdall, I’d be heading to the same house I rented a room in, 4 years earlier in my student days. A terraced house on Wilton Avenue, in the Polygon, Southampton’s student hinterland. It would be a wobbly first month.

Arriving on a Sunday, at the very end of everyone’s final semester, the atmosphere was subdued. A lot of people I’d met would be moving on. They were just starting their careers. Even the house I had come to know during my visits, the splendid shithole of Graham Road, wasn’t the same. I remember sitting in the RSH social with a pint thinking “Now what the hell do I do?” It felt very different, and yet I can’t say what I was expecting. That hazy week of March 1996 in perpetuity, like a sort of razzed-up Groundhog Day? So far it was a grey July evening, and a trudge back to a quiet and lonely room, to think about the start of my new life. So far, it wasn’t quite how I envisaged it.

To be continued…



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4 responses to “Odyssey, Pt 1.”

  1. Sarah Stanton 🌻 Avatar
    Sarah Stanton 🌻

    Really really good James! I’m looking forward to reading on… always a good sign to not lose the reader past the first chapter! Xx

    1. sully_b Avatar

      Thanks Sarah! It’s been a very interesting exercise putting it all down.

  2. Adams Andrew Avatar
    Adams Andrew

    I remember those days well and miss the fun. Graham Road was indeed a shithole!

    1. sully_b Avatar

      It was something else, wasn’t it? It was knackered just before we left. Not a single kitchen cabinet was intact, the upstairs toilet was beginning to fall through the floor..I look at it in street view now and it’s all PVC windows and fresh paint. I wonder what it’s like inside? Almost definitely split out into bedsit rooms.

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