Wednesday, April 26, 2017

First Impressions

I wrote in some notes for another, unrelated, blog entry, Marmite Man. It wasn't a new brown sludge-like superhero, it was a self-effacing comment about the effect I have on people. It's always pretty much been the case that people either like me or really dislike me. It is something I have grown to live with over the years and is only ever a problem when I meet someone I like and they think I'm a wanker.

Probably the most 'famous' incident of this was in the late 1980s. One of the groups of friends the wife and I hung around with were very divided about me. It got to the stage around 1987 when several people would literally turn on their heels and go somewhere else if they saw my car parked outside the usual house we gathered in. One of my best friends at the time was a guy called Derrick, he had a really good friend called Roger and the latter hated me with a passion. He thought I was a gobshite (my words, not his) and he really couldn't stand to be in the same room as me. It looked grim and Roger admits being one of those people who would rather go home and do bugger all than share his evening with that loud and opinionated fool (me).

The fact that I generated so much (almost) hostility with a certain faction of Derrick's friends didn't appear to cause any lasting problems; we were, at the time, all pot-smoking pseudo-hippies, but it was obvious that my presence, at times, was probably about as desired as pants full of poo.

As this was the '80s and most of us were still in our 20s, there was a lot of parties and at one such party, one group of my friends kind of collided with another... It wasn't at all confrontational, they just didn't really talk with each other, so at this party there were groups of people in the lounge, in the kitchen and in the garden. Roger was with his side of 'our' friends, I was sitting in the lounge and our paths hadn't crossed. His little party gravitated to the lounge, split up and Roger was left looking like some people do at parties, I had a spliff on the go and thinking it should at least make an effort I offered it to him.

At roughly the same time as this was happening, one of my other friends, Vince, had quite quickly realised he was extremely pissed and started roaming round the party looking, for some strange reason, for me. I wasn't a big drinker even then, preferring to do irreparable damage to my lungs instead, therefore I tended to be the designated driver, although this particular night that wasn't on the cards. Vince, however, knowing he was headed down that alcohol hole of whirling ceilings and huge quantities of projectile vomiting, wanted to me to drop everything and take him home. This wasn't happening for a number of reasons, so as I was handing the spliff to Roger, I said, "We'd better get out of here, this is going to get ugly, messy and sick." And it did, in a most unpleasant way...

Being as adverse to drunks puking everywhere Roger joined me in the garden and that was where we stayed for best part of the rest of the evening. It appeared that Roger's first impression of me was slightly tinged with the 'Phil Stereotype' rather than me as a rational adult human being. We bonded over a hate of Thatcher, similar politics, football and a surprisingly similar musical taste and to cut a long story short, the following Friday while we were round Derrick's, Roger didn't turn on his heels and go home, he turned up and we spent most of the evening engrossed in friendly conversation. A friendship was born.

In 1991, Roger came on holiday with us - a bunch of people went to the Lake District and he came along and it was there, I think, we started to become very good friends. Over the following 15 years, we went on holiday with Roger and his new partner Barbara six times. One of those holidays is quite important in the grand scheme of things, because like Roger's first impression of me, our first impression of the south-west of Scotland was 'we'll never go there again!'.

It was September 1998 and my mum had died six months earlier; my life had been in a massive turmoil because of that and work [just to remind people Dez Skinn sacked me because I had to go to my mum's funeral rather than deadline day at the magazine] and we all thought a nice week in Scotland would be just what the doctor ordered. We booked a cottage in Ballantrae, thinking it would be as picturesque and romantic as Robert Louis Stevenson's book.

It was a shit hole.

The cottage was damp, cold and cramped. The 'village' of Ballantrae was dull, uninspiring and got christened Corby-by-the-Sea - which, thinking about it was an insult to Corby - and the pub was like the Slaughtered Lamb transposed to Scotland and with no werewolves. To add insult to injury, we often went on holiday in late September as the weather usually proved to be excellent and true to form we had over a half a week of lovely warm days coupled with everywhere being shut.

With hindsight, which is an odd thing at times, we discovered that we pretty much went to all the places you should avoid and the few bright spots were overwhelmed by the general crappiness of the holiday. However, one of the 'wrong' places we went to would come back and haunt us...

Ballantrae is in south Ayrshire and that is, even today, a relatively deprived area, so as four of our days out were in and around there it was always going to be difficult to find something better than run down. One of the other days took us to Stranraer - an awful place in '98 with 'no hope' slung round its neck and it was on the Rinns (the peninsular Stranraer sits at the top of) we found the first lovely places - Port Patrick and Port Logan - this was more like what we expected. On the recommendation of the landlord of the pub in Port Patrick, we spent the next day driving around Wigtownshire.

After a nice morning at the botanical gardens in Castle Kennedy, we took a drive round the coast road. First we hit Port William, which was another quiet coastal village, which also seemed shut, we travelled further along and amazingly drove past beaches we would eventually fall in love with. We found ourselves in the Isle of Whithorn, which really did tick all the boxes - picturesque, pub with real ale and, as xenophobic as this might seem, some English people who made us feel more at home than at any point in the week. The plan after we'd had lunch was to drive back up the coast, visit Whithorn with its theological history and then head to Newton Stewart.

Whithorn was shut. It was also a strangely ethereal place that was more akin to a ghost town than a village almost classed as a small town. It was like the village of the damned... The girls now needed the loo and according to the OS map there was one in a place called Wigtown, which would be a short detour off the main route. We found the public loos easy enough and while the girls' did what they needed Roger and I decided to check out the main drag.

All I can say for sure is I wasn't the only person in our group of two who felt like we were being watched. The uneasy feeling spread all over all four of us; this place seemed dead and inhospitable. In fact, it could have been twinned with Whithorn! The entire place felt decidedly creepy and we spent less than half an hour there and high tailed it out. We got our shopping in the lovely town of Newton Stewart, stopped for a pint in a local hotel and discovered that Wigtown had been decimated by the closure of its principle two business in the previous year - the distillery and the dairy - and that a lot of that part of the country was extremely sectarian, with many links to Northern Ireland (no peace agreement at this time). We reasoned that our unsettling experience might have been down to that and the fact it didn't look like a tourist village, so we must have looked like happy black people in 1950s Alabama with beach balls and swimming cossies.

On the way home we all agreed that that 'experiment' was not something we planned to repeat again, ever. South-west Scotland became the last place we'd place on our list of potential holidays.

Fast forward 14 years and the UK is celebrating having both the Olympics and the Queen's 500th birthday, or something like that. I was working at a school and out of the blue, the wife's brother's then girlfriend (now wife) asked us if we fancied a week's free holiday staying at her dad's place... in Wigtown...

It was free. We hadn't had a holiday for two years and if nothing else we could use the place as a base and head inland and look for places we missed 14 years earlier. When we arrived there we found a completely different 'town' than we remembered. It was full of book shops, small antique places, a newspaper museum and the place was buzzing with anticipation at the forthcoming book festival the following month. We were made to feel extremely welcome and by the end of the week, having discovered loads of fantastic places, beautiful beaches, wondrous woods and at least three pubs that sold good real ale, we had changed our opinion of it.

So, when the offer came again two years later, when both of us were at a low ebb, it seemed like a godsend. It was very much a repeat of the previous holiday, but we discovered more places and the first tentative noises were made about the possibility of us retiring there.

In 2016, we received a bad prognosis for the mother-in-law; she didn't have long to live and this was seen as a blessing by all her children because she had been suffering enough. The distasteful part was that the wife ended up with more inheritance than she expected and suddenly, after some figures and numbers were crunched, we realised that we could move there - now.

So, in February, we headed off to Newton Stewart to see half a dozen potential homes. The one that I felt was least likely was also the only realistic purchase available in Wigtown and as you can guess, it was like a home and we fell for it immediately.

Now, we're on the cusp of May and the move is likely to happen in the next six weeks; after some setbacks we're back on course.

In 1999, after over a decade of living in Wellingborough, we'd decided to become slumlords and rented our house out and bought a dump in one of the worst parts of Northampton, despite vehemently discounting the purchase as a 'fucking stupid idea'. I had 13 months of unequalled hell there, but we sold the place to a young family from South Ayrshire (!), who gifted us £23,000 profit. This enabled us to buy the house we've now sold. Our first impressions of that 13 month holiday in purgatory was bad and it still is bad, but we made money from it, so really it ended up being good, although I'll always look back on that year as a means to an end and nothing more.

We might have made a bad mistake. Camelot tells lottery winners not to move away from family and friends, but we ain't won the lottery and we do know people up there - none of them are 'friends' as yet and the Marmite factor might kick in - but I've been reliably informed I'm nowhere near as 'salty' as I once was.

I'm hoping that Wigtown proves to be as good a friend as Roger turned out to be and that first impressions prove bugger all in the grand scheme of things, or maybe it's because, sometimes, you have to give something another go before you commit to anything long term.

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