The Best Year of my Life

I was born in 1982, the same year as Britney Spears and Prince William. I’m sure there are many more celebrities born in the same year, I’m just listing the two I can remember. People say I look a bit like Prince William, but I’m not sure.

Princess Diana died in my fifteenth year… I went up to London the day of the funeral, because I was fiercely monarchical and I knew it would be a historic occasion. Streets full of people crying everywhere, shops closed early on Saturday (!) out of respect, and a book of remembrance in Kensington that people queued for hours in the hope of signing. I’d never seen anything remotely like it, this was before anyone close to me had died, before I went to a funeral.

I witnessed the royal scandals, reading about them in the daily papers on my news round, I saw my parents divorce and see other people, so I knew even the royal family had their problems and were fallible to the same pitfalls as normal people.

A year later I was into acting in a big way, I failed my school exams and had to retake my first year of sixth form college. That was the year Frank Sinatra died. Another towering giant I would never meet in person, he was a mystical figure known to me only for his glittering concerts. I now think he was the greatest singer to have ever picked up a microphone, but I didn’t think that then.

I suppose I grew up in the eighties but I came of age in the nineties. I managed to miss most of the political fallout to Thatcher Vs the miners and the Hillsborough disaster. I was only seven when the Berlin Wall came down and the  Soviet Union dissolved. I mention all of this because I think you can’t escape from the time you were born. We are a product of our time. No doubt people who grew up during the Cuban Missile Crisis remember building bomb shelters and the fear of a communist takeover. I never lived through anything as terrifying as that, until the planes flew into the World Trade Centre and people were falling from the skies. You can’t fail to be desensitized by that, how could anyone not be? For a while after the attack, I was afraid to use elevators and I got vertigo in tall buildings.

Well, I went to study film in 2002, which for someone brought up on images instead of words seemed like the most logical thing to do. At university I had pictures of the Rat Pack on my house lounge. My idols were Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, but I also liked Peter Lawford very much too, because he made it as an Englishman in Los Angeles, at a time when that must have been really difficult. i learnt to roll my own cigarettes (much cheaper) and how to act interested in what someone was saying even when I wasn’t. And i was learning about girls, who were still a foreign species to me.

My best friend was studying medicine at the same time. i always knew he would go in for something like that. He had the organised mind, the mental abilities and the scientific knowledge, it was just something he was meant to do.

After the second year of university, I came back home to my mum’s house. I had gone travelling in Europe the previous summer, my student loan giving me a nice fund and the perfect opportunity to promenade around Europe’s historic cities. In 2004, there were no famous deaths that I can recall. The war in Iraq had come to an end. There was no serious terrorist attack that I can recall. i was doing the best I had done in my studies. I found a great house for my last year. We threw some crazy parties, filling the bathtub with beer and holding our own rock concerts in the basement. Spirits were high, and some of us were getting high, but I didn’t need pot to make me feel fine.

My friend was studying in Prague for a stage. He asked if I would come out there for a while. his girlfriend had broken up with him and he must have needed the company, or else he wouldn’t have asked. i got out there as fast as I could. i didn’t need any persuading. he had his own place that was on Wenceslas Square which was where the russian tanks rolled in, scene of many uprisings and street rebellions. Whenever I think of Prague, Kracow, or any East European city, I picture dumplings, cabbage, and people dressed in folk costumes, and the music of Dvorak and Smetana. although each country has its own established identity, they all descend from the same race, the Slavs. Hitler tried to annihilate them, and they have been invaded and fought over, but somehow they have survived.

All that heavy food. My friend was surrounded by sausage and gravy, but he never ate it if he could help it. 2004, the summertime. Greece held the Olympics in Athens. i got a plane from London to Prague. I downed several vodkas and closed my eyes. My friend was there to meet me at the airport. I didn’t really know anyone else to spend the summer with. Most of my friends were either retaking exams or stuck in boring summer jobs. So I was glad to not have to do any of that. Well, we had all kinds of fun out there. Money was not a problem and if we ever ran out, well, his parents were just a phone call away. In the day we rented movies, bought wine., I scoured the local markets for local vegetables, herbs and spices. wine was bought (a lot) and we drank all day. In the evenings it was mostly beer, that was what the locals drank and we wanted to fit in. I suggested that we travel somewhere by train. I suggested Krakow. And so we booked a train the following evening. I say we, but it was just my friend, spending an hour in the booking office talking Czech to the clerk.

We got on the train that evening. It was mid-week and there weren’t many passengers on board, so we walked through several carriages before we found our compartment. It was eleven at night but we were both too excited to sleep.  I had bought Klaus Kinski’s Kinski uncut with me. He had Bill Bryson and we decided we’d swap books to keep things interesting. Whole towns and villages passed  by, but it was pitch black so we couldn’t see anything.  We arrived at Krakow at 6am, before most places had opened, and with no hostel booked. I was used to just turning up somewhere and taking pot luck at finding a room in a backpacker’s hostel but my friend was used to something more comfortable. He ignored all the places I suggested and instead booked us into a four star hotel. This was a step up from the grimy places I was used too. I suppose when you are young you  think you don’t mind where you sleep, but now it matters more.

It was a very luxurious holiday. I don’t mind admitting that it was the best year of my life.

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