Wednesday, December 17, 2003

The Demographic Shift - 11

The demographic shift makes people do strange things. However, by and away the weirdest of these is moving to bizarre and desolate parts of the country.

It is a strange habit catching on among a group of friends, who seem to be engaged in some weird game of one-upmanship. The aim of which is seeing who can move to the most peculiar part of the country. When I say bizarre and peculiar, of course what I really mean is remote and chiefly northern parts of England. I have three groups of friends who have done this so far (but am under strict orders not to mention one) and I am pretty sure that they literally tossed a coin on a map and where it landed off they went. Of course, these three all have one thing (more than one thing but, chiefly, one thing in common), which is that they have all gone into production and have a child.

Robert, for instance, literally lives on the side of a hill in deepest darkest Derbyshire ("I thought you were joking about being on the side of a hill") and, similarly, Marcus who lives at the bottom on a similar kind of hill in equally windy Yorkshire ("Robert actually got on his hill, you know"). I am never quite sure where these places are exactly, but they all have the same things in common. They are small pretty places (rural idylls, if you like) set in swirling English countryside (oh you know, think rustic rolling hills, rain, sleet and Bronte novels) and they are impossible to get to without the use of a Land Rover (OK, I'm exaggerating about the Freelander bit, but these are people who actually have a good claim to owning such a vehicle, compared with the woman trying to knock me over in Hammersmith each morning as she drives her kids around the corner to school).

When Marcus called me one day, about a year-and-a-half ago, and told me of his moving plans, I have to admit I laughed ("we're moving to Stallingwalling! It's in the country"). I think mostly I laughed because it sounds like the kind of place you make up (you know, filled with mad characters from a BBC drama) and, secondly, I laughed because the idea of moving to a place that I have never heard of was ridiculous. It's like there should at least be a rule that says you can only move to places that your friends have heard of. Unfortunately, there is no such rule, so off went Marcus to Stallingwalling in Yorkshire.

And, really, this is OK. If they want to do this and move to such unheard of places on the side of hills then, as a dedicated metropolitan urbanite, I don't have a real problem with this. It is, after all, their life and their patch of the hill. So, of course, after I finished laughing and shared the joke with friends, I wished him luck ("Hope it works out for you in Stallingwalling." "You're taking the piss." "I know, sorry.").

The thing is it doesn't stop there, because once your friends have up and left London and moved to these places, the other thing your friends do is call you and ask (beg) you to come and visit. Not particularly because they want to see you, but because they pretty much want to see anyone other than each other, day in and week out (they even admit this in a "well, we're not all that desperate to see you, but we would like to see someone" way).

But these aren't ordinary visits, like going for dinner or meeting in the pub. The visits have to be arranged months in advance and are subject to long lengthy negotiations that could rival the START II Treaty talks. These negotiations usually go something like this.

Telephone call number one:

"Hey Marcus."

"Hi, when are you coming to visit us?"

"I'm not. "

"You said you'd come at Christmas? Remember?"

"I was drunk and full of the spirit of goodwill."

"You're not serious, are you?"

"Well, sort of..."

"What about the 8th? "

"How long does it take to get there again? "

"Four/five hours, give or take.

"That's insane."

"You know what the trains are like. Now what about the 8th? "

"The 8th is fine."

"I'll check with Claire."

Telephone call number two:

"Actually the 8th is no good. What about the 15th?"

"No, can't do that, but I can do the 22nd and 29th. "

"Mmm, those are no good. We're hosting a first birthday party for 15 one-year-olds on the 22nd and the 29th is out too. Of course, you could come on the 22nd, there wouldn't be too much crying."

"Is that you or the kids? What about the 6th?"

"No, Claire's mother is down. "

"The 13th? "

"Oh, I don’t know I need to check with Claire."

Telephone call number three:

Actually, telephone call three has yet to happen, but any day now (friends in places like Stallingwalling get particularly hacked off at this time of year -- all that swirling mist and being in the middle of nowhere)...

Of course, this process will probably go on for a little while longer until we finally set a date about a month or two down the line. I know I sound like I'm complaining about this (and, well, I am, because the fact is that it is simpler and more straightforward to go to New York than it is to visit some of the stupid parts of the country friends move to).

When you do finally go and see them they protest about several things: firstly, that there is really nowhere to go (bar the popular activity of field walking -- "there's a field walkers club, we might join"); secondly, there is very little to do (the risible local outlet of the chain restaurant Pizza Express passing for top local food -- "well, the staff don't look too miserable"); and thirdly, that they never get to see anyone other than each other. To this last grumble, I really don't know what to say to sometimes (and it seems mean and uncharitable), but at other times I can not resist -- "well, duh?").

I guess the biggest question really is: why do it now? Why move ("seriously, it's called Stallingwalling") when you are still young and not quite old. It all seems premature really. Maybe the funniest thing is that some of my friends who have done it can not quite explain it either (or as Marcus put it -- "I'd like to say that it seemed like a good idea at the time, but it's all a little vague and maybe not even true").

With all that said and done, the really strangest thing is that when I talk about this phenomenon (this geographical element to the demographic shift) with friends, while we all remain kind of puzzled and unclear as to why these people have done what they have done to themselves and us, I can see it happening to me in an instant (a nightmare instance, sure). It's like some invisible force at work, snaking all around, and although moving to the middle of nowhere where you know no one and have no friends (jettisoning those friendships you spent years building up), is just about one of the last things on this earth that I could ever imagining doing... but somehow it also seems inescapable (finally a genuine paradox). I can't quite explain this, but it is something that feels incredibly true. I must have some crazed buried broody streak. Truly scary.

Anyway, back next year with a report from the last media party I'll ever go to.

PS: Stallingwalling is fictional and this column means no disrespect to the great Yorkshire. Heptonstall, however, is quite real and very windy.

Thursday, December 11, 2003

The Demographic Shift - 10

Generation X is depressed. I've been reading about it and apparently it is much worse for women, according to the research. This explains quite a lot.

The report into how things had turned out for Generation X, now we have crashed into 30-something (im)maturity, was of interest for obvious reasons, running out of 18- to 34-year-old road as I am.

The study ("Young people's changing routes to independence") was kind of like a school report. We did quite well in places. More than double the numbers of Generation X got degrees (still just 22% though) compared with the previous generation and we're better off as a result. On the downside, despite all of this extra cash we're depressed, which is not so good.

At least one of the stories I read was illustrated by a picture of a Raleigh Chopper, which was the must-have bike to ride around on in the 1970s (despite the propensity to send the rider over the handlebars with alarming regularity). With a Chopper (red) in the garage and a Scalextric in the house, you needed little more back then. Things are, of course, a little more complicated in the future -- we have mortgages and a vast array of financial commitments.

Unfortunately, like most reports, it doesn't go into details as to why Generation X is depressed exactly, but you can fill in the blanks for yourself. All the facts are there.

One fact, for example, was that 47% of women aged 33 have not had children. This fact, in particular, the researchers called "staggering" -- well, in the story in the Daily Mail they did (my mother, keen Mail reader that she is, will certainly be staggered). Of course, the Daily Mail is convinced also that all of those women who are not producing children are too busy binge drinking (which obviously involves some staggering, so that's correlation for you) and engaging in casual sex ("Has the world gone mad?").

What it seemed to come down to was that, armed with the university education and the high-paying (well, paying at least) job, the single lifestyle for some has just gone on for longer than anyone could have anticipated. I've checked this with Susan, who is my barometer on all things such as this. Except on the binge drinking aspect. Susan took to yoga in a big way and never looked back. I was convinced it would be fad, but not so (which is a shame). It's made her all spiritual, healthy and non-boozy. A night out with Susan entails a single bottle of Becks ("just a treat") and endless amounts of Evian (which as everyone knows spells naïve backwards).

"You don't think I'm being boring do you?"

"No."

"You're lying."

"I know. Sorry, but a night out with you is like being at an AA meeting and having you as my sponsor."

"I'd make a good sponsor. I'd introduce people to yoga."

"No need to worry about me, I have Yoda."

"But he's only four foot high, made out of cardboard, and you got him from WH Smith, which is just sad."

"My flatmate got him," I correct her.

"Like I said, sad."

I digress. I was going to say that Susan is as shocked as anyone else that she is single and almost 33. Susan, however, finds the new research comforting ("I like to know that I'm not on my own"). Like I've said, I worry about Susan, but she isn't depressed. Sure, she admits to the pressure of work combined with what she insists is the general poor quality general uselessness of the male stock, but she isn't depressed.

"Susan, when you say that you don't mean me, do you? I just want to be clear. As I'm sure these are the kind of comments that push people over the edge and lead them to cross 'very depressed' on survey forms."

"You fool. Of course, I mean you. You are one of the ringleaders, having shown a lack of commitment at every single opportunity. You're a bad influence on everyone you know."

That's harsh. Actually, I think I caught Susan at a bad moment. Things have been progressing in her life at a rapid pace leading to a calamitous family climax, but that is another story which I'll have to come back to.

I was actually calling Susan to share with her some good news. Well, I say good news. It's really good news bad news and, again, takes us back to the whole depressed and mixed-up Generation X.

What can I say? The wedding that was going to be the pride of Hertfordshire is off. My sister has dumped her perfect boyfriend for the most baffling reasons. She, for one, I know would definitely being ticking the ("Are you depressed?" "Mmm, kind of") box.

My sister, of course, sent me a text message telling me that the wedding was off ("you're spared finding someone to bring to the wedding -- it's off). Text messages do not do justice to such news, but calling just proved to be more baffling.

"My God, what happened?"

"I called it off."

"But why?"

"Because I didn't want to get married."

"But you only just said yes."

"I know and I didn't want to get married then either."

"But..."

"I thought marriage would be a precursor to breaking up. I know it sounds strange, but it made sense. Surely you've heard about marriage being the road to divorce? It's depressing I'll have to start again."

Of course, I've heard of the road (like I've heard of the A10). I thought that was a joke, though, made by couples who were about to take the plunge but were nervous (as opposed to totally unwilling). It's a strange world, what can you say? Maybe this is what the researchers mean when they say that despite our relative wealth, there is a "feeling in the background that their lives are not getting sorted out".

Who knows, answers on a postcard. Next week, it's the trip to visit the friends who live in the middle of nowhere ("but the schools are great!").