In the first in a new series, Standard Issue writers pen a letter to their hometown. For Julie Mayhew her note to Peterborough is a slow-burning romance.
It’s where I had my first kiss. The one you get shoved into in the playground by a squealing friend. More headbutt than innocent peck. My first milk tooth fell out not long after that – from the impact, probably.
I rode my bike there, through birdsong twilights, around dykes and vanishing fields. We heckled the builders as they packed up for the night – because Peterborough was nothing but one big construction site back then. We nicked the plastic spacers left behind by bricklayers and for a while they became this strange, useless currency at my primary school.
I saw my first show sitting on red plush velvet in the dark of the city’s Key Theatre, mesmerised by the girl in the ginger wig as she sang about tomorrow and the sun coming out, while my heart ached at the possibility it might not.
Friday nights were for prowling the carpet foyer of the Showcase Cinema, affecting the allure of Julia Roberts, searching out boys we would never dare speak to. On Saturdays: repeat – this time hanging off the balconies of the Queensgate shopping centre.
We roller-discoed, swam at the lido, stood on the London Road football terraces, our boots stuffed with tinfoil to stop the cold freezing our toes.
I fell in love there for the first time and, painfully, out again. I danced away the early hours of Friday mornings at Fifth Avenue nightclub after memorising my new, convincing date-of-birth.
My first longed-for job was in that city – at the Swallow Hotel, now the Marriott. The people there were my brilliant, second family. We spent our New Years’ Eves laughing through midnight in the kitchens, swigging the dregs from discarded champagne bottles.
That was my hometown. And I could not wait to leave.
I wanted to be in London. I had a clip-framed poster of the Tube map on my bedroom wall as essential preparation. I would live spitting distance from Camden Lock Market and Hyper Hyper, and hang out in dirty bars and smelly coffee shops. Enough of the wipe-clean tables of Burger King in Cathedral Square.
“I grew up in a place where my friends came from all cultures and classes, where immense privilege was not the norm. I used to think I had climbed, but now I don’t think that’s true.”
When I eventually got to London, I did feel triumphant, so superior to all those people on Friends Reunited who had stayed put. One boy posted a status that seemed to sum it up: “Never escaped Peterborough.”
Then I got married and we wanted a house big enough, in an area green enough, to bring up kids. Those folk on Friends Reunited didn’t seem so stupid now.
We moved outside of the M25 and my new friends were other parents who had also moved to this leafy town. But they weren’t there for the fresh air and the more affordable housing. This was their childhood home. Their parents lived nearby. For them, it was time to go back.
So why hadn’t I?
My usual answer would involve the racial tensions in Peterborough. How some parents put their kids on a bus to the next village rather than use their local school, my school, with its one-third Asian population. I wanted to live somewhere more liberal, I would tell them.
But can I really describe the place I live now as liberal? I’ve heard parents describe the ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’ local state schools as “terrible” – their excuse to extract their kids for a leg-up in private education. A school’s proximity to a council estate is enough to get it shunned. The arrival of a new Lidl in town frightened a minority of residents, scared that the chavs would invade.
My story has shifted. I now talk positively, fondly, of Peterborough. I grew up in a place where my friends came from all cultures and classes, where immense privilege was not the norm. I used to think I had climbed, but now I don’t think that’s true.
So I am going back. In words to begin with, spending six months writing and researching in the city, looking at Peterborough’s shifting cultural population, asking why people stay, why they leave and why some of them eventually return, seeing what stories emerge.
But really I could be writing about any British town – the one you grew up in, the one you hate or love, the place that has left its lasting mark on you, its story.
I met a cousin’s husband for the first time at the weekend. We reeled out the usual polite first questions: ‘What do you do?’ And then, of course, ‘Where are you from?’
He told me he didn’t want to answer that. “Why not?” I asked.
“Because there are so many more things that define me before my hometown,” he replied.
And I just knew there was a story in that…3538 Views
Julie Mayhew writes radio dramas about love and novels devoid of romance, most recently Nazi alt-history The Big Lie.