I have left Kent many times.
In the summer of 2001 I used to leave three times a day, in fact, on a P&O ferry called the Canterbury. Sometimes at night, more often in the bright light of a midsummer sun.
I cycled from my family home in a small village called Barham, thirteen miles to Dover. I rode through back roads dappled with light through woodland trees, past tiny primary schools, country pubs and downhill towards the sea. On the boat I worked in the canteen, the mess, the games room, the deck - all over. Each time we set sail, I would run up to the deck and watch the ferry depart the port, leaving the iconic white cliffs to get smaller and smaller.
Every time we returned, I would stay inside hoping we would never arrive back at the port. I would wish that we would dock somewhere else, not Dover, not Kent.
By the time I was old enough to work on those ferries, escaping Kent had become an obsession. Being so close to the coast, so close to France and the continent developed the gnawing idea that there was always something better, somewhere else.
Unable to afford to leave the country for most of my adolescence, trains frequently took me to London and back. We snuck into clubs underage, we dug in record store crates, we dreamed the dreams of youth on the banks of the Thames, pretending this city would be ours when we came of age.
Then came a bit more money, cheaper flights abroad and the lure of escape to far continents. I wanted to be as far away from Kent as possible. I had learned how to leave in Dover and felt the urge to put this into extreme practice.
I tried pretty hard to go pretty far.
I ended up at one point in 2007, walking into a bar in Lima, Peru. I don't think I'd seen the yellow sands of Jos Bay or the winding Valley Road for at least three years by then. Kent was far behind me. A memory, distant, unchanging.
I'd spent the day looking for somewhere that might possibly have a television that would be screening the England-India test match. Most mention of cricket on the streets of Lima drew a blank, but one man told me there was a cricket club in San Isidro. On arrival, a few old gentlemen walked past me in whites carrying Newberry cricket bats, nodded their heads and talked passionately about tactics - combining Spanish sentences with English field placings. I found the reception and asked if they had DirecTV and if they had bought the rights to screen the match. The lady behind the desk shook her head. No, she said, but there is an English pub by the cricket pitch if I'd like to have a look.
I thanked her and headed in the direction of the 'pub'. I felt discombobulated enough being in a cricket club in Lima, but to arrive at The Cricketers, set back behind the pavilion was extraordinary. The pub was a replica of a stereotypical Kentish pub. Hops (probably fake) lined the wooden beams above the bar. The chairs were solid, upholstered with a dark green check, the tables deep oak, soaked in beer stains. At the pumps, no Shepherd Neame (unfortunately) but at least some form of ale. The spirits were gins, rums and vodkas. There was a dartboard and, quite unbelievably, a bat and trap set resting against the wall in the far corner. I hadn't seen bat and trap outside of Kent, let alone on the far side of the world.
I ordered a gin and tonic and chatted to the bar tender. He knew nothing about the bat and trap, or about Kent. He said he liked cricket but couldn't play very well. I bored him with stories of games down in Bishopsbourne and against Dover Grammar, Kwick Cricket at the St Lawrence Ground and Aravinda da Silva living near us in Barham. After I ran out of breath he smiled politely, complimented my Spanish and pointed towards a frame at the side of the bar. It's old, he said, but they say it's about your home.
Inside this frame was a set of old 1930s cigarette cards. Each card was a 'Pub of east Kent'. My eye caught the White Hart in Canterbury, the Northern Belle of Margate and the Mariner's of Folkestone. Then sure enough, right at the bottom, was a cigarette card of the pub in my tiny village, Barham. I might have audibly gasped, I don't remember. It hurt, somehow, this frame. It made me feel lonely, adrift and rootless. But it also made me feel, in some way, secure. I knew what I was looking at. I knew exactly what it was. It was a communication that was utterly clear.
The person who had brought this frame to Lima, the bat and trap set, the dart board - they knew what they were doing. They were bringing a slice of east Kent with them to share with Lima. They probably knew that anyone who discovered this pub who knows Kent would feel the way I did. But they probably also hoped that the people who don't know east Kent would be intrigued, beguiled and inspired by their trinkets and bric-a-brac.
This, in a long winded way, is how I feel about a new anthology, Connecting Nothing with Something, which I and my fellow Kent exile Gary Budden edited and was released this week.
It's an attempt to record the south east coast we know, or have experienced. It was our chance to invite writers to send us their literary cigarette cards, stories and poems that invoke a strong sense of place and culture. It was our job to frame them. It was our job to put them in a book for anyone to read.
I hope that the writing from this anthology gets knowing nods from men and maids of Kent, chuckles from the Sussex set. Equally, I hope that those with little knowledge of this strange part of the world, will gain some understanding of it through our fictions. I've gained more understanding of my home from editing this collection.
Though short, this anthology is, to me, a great representation of what the south coast offers. It is weighed heavily at each end by the twin tourist towns of Hastings and Margate, with a surreal filling of writing about the places in between these famous small giants. The writing is in turn sharp witted, drunk, melancholic, jealous, happy, isolated and communal. It smells like salt water and hops, late night kebabs and early morning walks on the cliffs. It finds humour in dark places and drama in the small things. It's forever looking somewhere else, yet when it looks away its only ever really looking for itself.
Both Gary and I are aware that nostalgia just ain't what it used to be. The difficulty with putting together a collection about somewhere you grew up and have known for all your years is avoiding a backwards look with a longing gaze. With our selections for Connecting Nothing with Something, we've tried to create a perspective that looks straight forward and maybe a little sideways. We've selected writers who are still living in Sussex and Kent, writers who frequently visit and writers who are exiled in places like London. This mix is important, it reflects the nature of the south east coast - a mongrel place of comers and goers, stayers and naysayers. I self-exiled a long time ago but the south east coast of England will always have a hold over me.
When I return to Kent these days, I sometimes long to stay. Maybe this book is my attempt at leaving some permanent part of myself there, within its pages.
Connecting Nothing with Something is available to buy here: