Sunday, 29 January 2012

Woking: another place, another life

Recently my mate Chappers posted a clip about my hometown, Woking, on Facebook: Anyone who grew up in a provincial, culturally devoid backwater like Woking will no doubt recognise the jubilant ironic pride with which comedian Rufus Hound advertises modest little Woks as “a place the train goes through” and “where people who can’t afford a house with a garden in London come to rub shoulders with the thick”.

I often think about places and what they mean in the repertoire of locations that form the backdrop to your life. Do people who grew up in places with interesting landscapes – hills and coastlines and big rocks – have a different cognitive functioning to people who spent hours looking at vast expanses of East Anglian sky and flat lines? Which one stimulates the imagination more? What effect does landscape have on your aesthetic sense? How much is the place you became you still in you somewhere?

Although I adored the friends and family that were in my life in Woking, lots of my memories of that place centre around it being a bit of a dive. I spent an amazing gap year in the Middle East, mind being blown by the deafening silence of the desert, whose thick quietude reverberated in my consciousness, and discovering ornate temples and camels and sun-bleached palm trees. But actually, it wasn’t a gap year at all, but a gap six months – the first three of which I spent feeling horridly homesick for mundane Woking, for the dodgy village characters in the Hare and Hounds and the tidy domestication of the Peacocks Shopping Centre. And before I went to Amman, Jordan, I worked in Burger King, Woking for six months – a full-time till drone selling flame-grilled burgers and greasy fries to Woking’s tired shoppers, screaming brats and disillusioned office workers.

I realised during a recent conversation with my colleagues that my Burger King days were rather amusing. One of my managers was a scary lesbian with a mullet who had a bit of a soft spot for me, and would give me my choice of shifts (I didn’t work one Sunday the whole time I was there). On a busy day she’d pair up with me, putting the orders on the tray as I put them through the till and took the cash (I don’t think it was just her who called this set-up “backing”…). On one particularly cringe-worthy occasion, a customer asked for a blueberry muffin, which I will remember for the rest of my life cost 69p. This is because, just after I smilingly said to the customer “That’s 69p please!”, my manager leant over and whispered in my ear “That’s my favourite number”. I hope you are shuddering in horror just as I do every time I remember this.

Burger King was in fact one of the first times I felt professionally competent. It was my first paid job. I had to wear a baseball cap and two badges on each of my bosoms that said “GO LARGE FOR ONLY 30P” and “BIG KING: 100% EXTRA BEEF”. But I was also really good. It doesn’t seem like much to say, but actually learning where every menu item is on a huge till and pressing the keys in the right combination was surprisingly difficult (I had several restless, sweaty dreams about how to put through a chicken royale meal with extra cheese). Once I had this mastered, I was awesome. I felt like a robot, sliding around the tiled floor in fluid, mechanical movements, knowing exactly how far to stretch my arm to reach the coke button and which order to pick things up in to make the transaction fast and perfect. I was a stalwart of till 4 – the one in the middle that needed somebody efficient to clear the queue quickly. And even now I get annoyed when I go into a Burger King and they put the food on the tray in wrong order (drink first, and fries shouldn’t be placed on the tray until the burger is ready. Fries have a larger surface area than a burger so go cold more quickly. I’m serious).

It was also the first time I got loads of male attention. There were a couple a geeky blokes who came in every day and ordered the same thing for lunch. It got to the stage where they’d only let me serve them and I’d say “usual?” as if they were regulars in a pub with their own personal tankard. Then one of them gave me a teddy bear with his phone number written on the label! I even got chatted up by Father Christmas. He sent one of his elves in from his grotto (in the bandstand outside BK) with a card from him with a Polaroid of himself on the front, his beard pulled down and waving, with his number inside. Funny how desperate people assume you must be if you work full time in a fast-food place.

I also got a series of love letters in French from a Moroccan guy I befriended who worked in the kitchen (if you can call it that). They were beautifully written, which was a shame because I had no interest in him whatsoever.

How could someone with a reasonable brain get enjoyment out of such a job, I hear you ask? Well, it proved to me that if a job’s worth doing at all, it’s worth doing properly, no matter how ‘beneath’ you it might seem. To me, there is no point in doing a bad job of anything. And doing a full-time job that involved scooping solid lumps of white lard from a metal trolley into a chip fryer, counting the number of wasted burgers each day from the bin, and dealing with customers who bring food back an hour and a half after buying it to complain that it is cold means that you get a proper sense of perspective about what you don’t want to do and where you don’t want to be. It allows you to passionately embrace all the wonderful things about life and relish your more prestigious successes. It reminds you that you don’t want to hang around outside the Firkin smoking weed or hear stories about people committing suicide by jumping off the Toys-R-Us multi-story car park.

Nonetheless, a few years and a first-class degree later, I took a temp job at NRS Direct Care, a company that delivered mobility equipment to disabled and elderly people in their homes. I think I thought I’d be living by my values and helping people. Little did I know that NRS was the most depressing, useless and negligent corner of the Sheerwater Business Park. The company was so bafflingly incompetent at providing a decent service to the most vulnerable people in our area that it made us all bad at our jobs. We’d bullshit and let people down at every turn. The only form of escape was Thursday nights out with colleagues in the eponymous Woking, getting shitfaced in whichever hideous club was popular that month (there aren’t enough people in Woking to keep more than one seedy after-hours joint going at a time). Then we’d all come into the office on Friday hungover to shit, and take turns napping on the Airwave mattress in the showroom downstairs (usually for people with severe bedsores).

Thankfully after six months of genuine stuck-in-a-ruttedness, I realised that this wasn’t ME, and got a job selling books in Waterstones. And Waterstones is in Guildford, a town I could passably associate myself with. A pleasing feeling of being surrounded by knowledge and enlightenment. A pretence that even though it was a retail job, existence could not be vacuous in a bookshop. Creeping away from the bleakness of small town Woking. Just like BK, NRS gave me the impulsion to do something else, to grab life and appreciate it – and that’s when I did my Masters degree, became a part-time editor, and the rest is history.

And now I live in Oxford. A place that feels intellectual and cultural and that I am so proud to call home. Even though I still sometimes call Woking “home”! You can take the girl out of Woking, but…?

So what is ‘home’ anyway? Just a concept of a place, and how you feel you belong or not to it. Not the solid walls and architecture and street furniture and bandstands and Ashmoleans. It’s the life you create for yourself and the things you do to make yourself feel fulfilled. It’s the prospect of a better life. It’s the hope that some day soon, you will do something great that will justify your parasitical existence on this earth. It’s your own imagining of home. It’s created by you.

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