I didn’t ask for this.
I dimly remember, aged sixteen or so, the first Subway appearing on Canterbury High Street. This would have been around 1999.
As teenagers in a provincial heritage city, it felt like progress, becoming part of the modern world. After school: go to Richard’s Records to sift through vinyl, an exotic meatball sub, then perhaps a cheeky illegal pint in Simple Simons. The record store has long since died, and Simple’s became The Parrot. It saddens me. I rationalise it as being OK; the building has been there since 1370, 641 years where it outlived the English Revolution, plagues, Huguenots, swing riots, two world wars, post war planning, Thatcher. But not redevelopment. Time will take its inevitable toll. Things change, yet I repeat myself.
The nagging thought that my memories are important, really, only to me and the people I shared them with. When I die, they die with me unless I attempt to put something to paper. Take a blurry photograph. Tell a story. The topographies of our towns and cities changes so fast you have to record, note down, to prove you were ever here. Make some dent before your life is covered in tarmacadam and assigned to some tedious footnote in a book on social history.
Did any of it really happen? I can’t find my life in the official promotional literature or on the tourist information website. I’m walking in a city that is as unrecognisable to me as it would be to the Romans.
We sit in The Parrot’s beer garden, sipping satisfactory (but nothing more) Shepherd Neame, served by a Finnish barmaid. The pint goes down slowly, and I reflect on the age of this place, Radigunds Hall, and my own small contribution to its winding narrative. Recollection of an eight per cent cloudy cider named Olde Hazey and the headaches it caused. Open fires and clouds of thick tobacco smoke on a Christmas Eve. The old, gnarled men who were presumably taken out when the dead wood got cleared away.
A young man with middle-class dreadlocks and thick lensed glasses engages us in conversation. Something about being thrown out of a local club for the way he looked, and a false accusation of a fake tenner. He has an irritating naivety when he speaks of ‘not conforming’. I’m in a bad mood and not feeling very charitable or conversational, and think he’s just a fucking pretender, think he should take a beating from the police before talking about ‘not conforming’ and then he’ll realise that his dreads mean fuck all. He was probably a nice kid, but we leave the pub, leave him alone.
The ancient city, Canterbury, has lost itself. We walk the old streets, as brightly coloured French school troupes wander aimlessly in search of something that they will never find; beer bellied young men with burnt red skins and shit tattoos seem to be everywhere. With gelled hair, wrap around shades and an unearned swagger, their T-shirts are stretched to breaking point and adorned with strange symbols like ‘DKNY’, meaningless patterning all over. The kind of men who, as younger versions of themselves, would have punched me as a teenager for wearing some band-themed hoody. Getting pulled over by a copper for swearing copiously at my attackers, who ran off. I was disrupting the peace, or something. My ribs ached.
The memories of this Roman city swill around like quicksilver, poisonous and fluid.
The cafes look too familiar, as if imported direct from Stoke Newington, their produce equally priced to the London eateries. A non-surprise that I really should have seen coming. Five pound something for some sandwich with goat’s cheese and a few cherry tomatoes, a smattering of salad and half a bag of crisps to adorn the plate.
Canterbury Cathedral looks on impassively as we munch without enthusiasm. The cathedral, once free for all, now nine pounds entry for adults. The site of a Saint falling to Norman murderers where “the blood white with the brain and the brain red with blood, dyed the surface of the church.”
It all seems so impossibly removed from the new Costa Coffee, the two Starbucks, the McDonalds with tasteful outdoor seating area. The absurdity of American fast food layered over the background of British history.
Maybe, I think, I’ll go back to the vegan thing and force myself to drop out of this whole charade. A kind of cultural self-sabotage. Less choice becomes a kind of freedom. We finish the sandwiches and salad.
We leave soon after, having to head back to Herne Bay on a packed and sweaty local bus service.