When I was 17 I worked in a bakery in central Norwich (from which I got the sack – another story). I hated every second of it. From the getting up early and dragging myself into Norwich (spending my first hour’s wages on bus fare alone), to the grease, the indifferent customers, my patronising boss and the harsh reality that if I wanted driving lessons, this was probably the only way.
I tell a lie. I didn’t hate every second of it. There’s something incredibly special about the feeling of owning a place before anyone else has. It’s why one of the first things I do when I arrive in a foreign town or city is go for a run – to explore it anew. As I would trudge up Gentleman’s Walk, the early market traders would be rattling their stalls, whistling and chatting. The days was ours and full of promise.
I didn’t plan to return to Norwich. So it is with some surprise that after five years away at university and another ten living in London and then more living outside Norwich, that I experience this again.
Because of the kind of work I’ve always done I have an anthropological thirst. It means that wherever I am I’m seeking out the underbelly of a place. This is neither good nor bad, but it can be emotionally draining and mean every holiday is a busman’s holiday.
And so, I again find myself walking up Gentleman’s Walk in the early hours. The pleasure of the new day is the same. With perspective and hopefully increased empathy, I look at those around me. The same rattling, chatting and whistling on the market to be sure.
But who else do you see on our streets at this time? And this isn’t just another piece about the homeless in doorways, despite each person filling me with the sadness of their individual story. I meet street cleaners, people (usually women) cleaning shops, people waiting alone for buses to work, joggers and the successful high-flyers too.
I project my obsessions and see many striving to get by, often in low paid work, away from their families because of distances to be travelled, a lack of choice and opportunity and life on the edge. I ponder how far any of us is from not being able to enjoy the new day as much.