Thursday, 24 August 2017

Bye bye Bicester

Next Wednesday will be a landmark moment in my life. For it marks the day, some 26 years after my arrival in Bicester, that I make my departure.

Looking at it another way, that's precisely 9,595 days. I found a website to calculate that for me in case you think I was sitting there like some saddo with a spreadsheet or calculator working out. Which I probably would have been if it hadn't been for the website.

9,595 days sounds huge and it certainly has been a long time. I was 21 then, I'm 47 now. Frank Sinatra sang that when he was 21 it was a very good year. For me it certainly was, as 47 is shaping up to be. The years between have varied in quality but there can be no denying there have been a lot of them. Suddenly I appear to be nudging middle-age.

Here's what Bicester looked like when I arrived...has it really been that long?

We've established, then, that I've given Bicester the best years of my life. So what has Bicester given me?

It has given me a place to live and a place to grow and I don't just mean my waistline. I thought I was all big and clever at 21, but looking back now, quite honestly I was practically still a kid. It seems crazy to think I was buying a house at 21, but the world has changed since then. Less people went to university so more were earning earlier. In fact people did everything earlier in those days - including getting married and starting families. Any couple holding down two average jobs could afford to buy a place back then. We called it settling down, but it wasn't a good idea in my case. I wasn't ready for it. I may have been earning a decent wage, but, well I was 21 and not that big on responsibility. More money was spent in the pub than on the mortgage.

Bicester was cheaper to buy in than elsewhere in Oxfordshire at that time. The M40 had only just opened, as had big Tesco's (mark 1). The road to the M40 was just a single carriageway each way and rarely got clogged up. But of course, there was no Bicester Village then (I'll come on to that later).

Bicester not only gave me a house to live in, but also a place where I felt at home, right from the first day. After unpacking my meagre possessions (mostly records and books), I wandered into town with my girlfriend of the time. We ate chips from the Lemon Plaice on a wall by the church and then went into The Six Bells which we found to be a happy, friendly sort of place. Soon after I found The White Horse, full of salt-of-the-earth, locals, who were only too willing to welcome a newcomer into their midst. In the years ahead, my local changed, to The Plough, The Bell, and The White Hart, making friends wherever I went.

So why leave now, after all these years? Well there are all sorts of reasons behind it, but the primary motivator is financial. I want to buy a decent sized family home for my children and due to the over-inflated property prices in Bicester, it's not possible. We are no longer the sleepy little market town where you could buy a starter home for 3x your salary with ease a quarter of a century ago. We are now firmly in the London commuter belt, something that can be seen on the billboards of many new building sites which scream out "Only 45 minutes from Marleybone", one of their key selling points it seems. There are no prizes for identifying their target market.

Then there's Bicester Village which we are told has put Bicester on the map. Now I've waxed lyrical on Bicester Village many times in the past and I'm not going to regurgitate it all again here. Suffice to say that my personal view is that it has been detrimental to the town for all manner of reasons.

Moving hadn't really been an option for me until recently. I was tied to a career in Oxford for my first 15 years here, then I had my local DJ business for several years after that. But switching to writing has opened up new possibilities - I can now work anywhere.

But where? Well, it took a long time to decide. We went all over the country looking for somewhere to lay down some new roots but nowhere seemed quite right. Then, we found the perfect place in Evesham. It's less than forty miles away but what a world of difference in house prices! Having spent some time there now, it sort of reminds me of how Bicester used to be. It's about 2/3 the size of Bicester currently, but has lots of facilities we don't have here. I have a McDonalds within walking distance of my new house for a start. That's something Bicester folk have been crying out for since I got here, to no avail. It's almost become a standing joke now on the Bicester Chat page on Facebook.

Just five days to go then until an exciting and fresh start for me in a new place. I've never had much difficulty making friends so I think I will be able to make the most of the opportunity. Even so, it goes without saying that I'm going to miss all of you back here awfully. I have made so many amazing friends here in Bicester that it is going to be a huge wrench knowing I'm not going to see you regularly any more. I'm not quite sure how Bicester feels about my departure, I would imagine there would be a range of reactions all the way down from "Bicester's just not going to be the same without him" to "Great, we've finally got rid of the bastard!"

You haven't completely got rid of me as I plan to pop back for occasional nights out, probably on a Sunday, since those of you who remember my karaoke nights will know that it has always been my night. It seems appropriate that I'll be saying goodnight this Sunday at the karaoke night I started at The White Hart nine years ago. It's still thriving four years after my retirement under the wonderful Charlee. If you want a last chance to share a pint with me, or even just the chance to tell me to piss off before I go, this is your chance.

When I think about what I'm really going to miss about this place, there's really only one answer. It's not the place at all - it's the people.

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Alternate Realities

August is shaping up to be a busy month. Not only is it the school holidays but we are also moving house at the end of the month. I'm not sure of the exact date - we are still waiting on an exchange of contracts which should have happened last week. More on that when I have it.

In addition, I release a new book at the end of this month so thought this would be an ideal opportunity to let you know how I came up with the idea.

Having written three spin-offs over the past couple of years, I sat down at the start of this year with the feeling it was time for a new Time Bubble book. If you've read the first three you'll recall that the third book tied up most of the loose ends and brought what was intended to be a trilogy to a close.

But the spin-offs raised new questions, plus there were some things at the end of the third book that I still felt needed exploring. I want to avoid spoilers here so all I will say is that at the end of the third book a major change occurred to the timeline. This led me to think about what the effects of that on the people involved might be?

What if both universes were now in existence - the one where the character died and the one where he/she didn't? What if the one who lived could subconsciously dream at night about the other reality? My own personal experience came into play here, because I have this strange recurring dream that has bugged me for years.

Back in 2005 I took the decision to take voluntary redundancy from my job at Nielsen. This was undoubtedly one of the biggest decisions of my life which led me to where I am today. But strangely, ever since I left, I frequently dream at night that I am still there, going off to client presentations, dealing with 'Watty' (the boss) and interacting with my old colleagues. There are other oddities too - in this strange alter ego of a universe I park my car at Pitt Rivers Museum every morning and cycle up to the office in Headington. Which is a bit random, to say the least.

The only two explanations I can come up with are as follows. Firstly, somewhere in my subconscious mind I feel guilty that I left my career behind to pursue other interests because it's going against convention. Perhaps deep down I feel that I should have played the game according to the rules, been a good little office bod, built a career and now be approaching middle age with a highly paid job, mortgage paid off and holidaying in the Caribbean every year. (Except it probably wouldn't be the Caribbean because I don't like injections).

The bit about cycling might be some sort of guilt over my middle-aged spread and lack of fitness, a common affliction for men of my age but not an insurmountable one given sufficient willpower and time, which I seem to lack.

But the reality is that I don't feel this way in my waking hours at all. Leaving Nielsen has brought me new experiences, a family and a whole new way of life. Yes, I may not be wealthy but the thought that I might have spent the last 12 years still sitting in the office and all that goes with it horrifies me.

The second explanation is that there really is another universe where I didn't take redundancy and the other me is still living that life. The movie, Sliding Doors, springs to mind. My dreams are quite detailed and one major difference is that in that universe I never settled down and never had children. That alone is not a good advert as no amount of money or status can ever substitute for my family.

Whatever the true reason for all of this, it provided a good starting point for my new novel. In the first third of the book we meet all the old characters as they get together and the story of one of the affected character's dreams comes out. This piques the interest of Josh, the main protagonist this time, who sets out to prove the existence of these other worlds. Extending his time travel experiments, he eventually discovers a way to travel between them.

Unfortunately at this point things go a bit pear-shaped and he finds his means of getting back damaged. Travelling back in time each time, he finds himself jumping from one alternate world to another, and this is where the story really gets going.

I really had quite a lot of fun with this, exploring many different possibilities of the "What if?" variety. So Josh ends up visiting worlds where his life took a different path, where the whole world took a different path after the Battle of Hastings, and where contemporary events involving Donald Trump, Kim Jong-un and ISIS create some very scary situations indeed.

The thing I really loved about writing this was it gave me several different blank sheets of paper to indulge my imagination in any way I liked. I'm hoping you'll enjoy the final outcome.

Splinters In Time will be released on 31st August 2017. You can pre-order it using the links below:

For the UK, click here        For the USA, click here