Saturday, September 29, 2007

Practical Time Travel

This week, I've been reaping one of the tangible benefits of my job - regular, pertinent training courses. Specifically, I've been attending a five-day hands-on course on one of technologies we deploy for our clients. In Reading.

I lived in Reading from January 1989 until October 1996, having moved there six months after graduating, as I worked in nearby Bracknell, and Reading was the nearest thing to a city in commuting distance. Having spent a damaging four months in shared accomodation, it was imperative to find a place of my own again, so I moved into a bedsit on the edge of the town centre. It was tiny, but I stuck it out for 18 months until decamping to a larger basement studio flat and then a year after that into a boxy starter home on a new development a few miles out.

At 22 when I moved there, to 30 when I left, I underwent quite a few formative experiences in the town. Edinburgh, where I fled to in 1996 seemed a total contrast - you never saw tourists in Reading, for example. Since 1996, I'd been through Reading precisely twice, never for more than an hour. In 1998, I drove through the town to buy a newspaper en route from Cornwall to Heathrow, and last year briefly drove by each of my three former addresses. That last encounter proced deeply unsettling - each looked exactly as I left it, but all traces I'd ever lived there had been obliterated, as if I'd never been there.

So this year, I returned for more than a hour for the first time in eleven years. Walking from the station to my hotel on Sunday night, the town centre appeared to have been remade: tarmac roads were replaced with redbrick pedestrianised areas, replete with faux-gas lamps and hanging baskets. Coffee shops proliferated. It seemed actually nice.

The following day, I went for a run after work. I had a vague notion of heading towards Prospect Park where I had run during a transitory flirtation with health and fitness in 1991. I stuck a live Marillion concert on my MP3 player and jogged through the centre and out along the Tilehurst Road as Splintering Heart (1991!) accompanied me. I passed Russell Street and Western Elms Avenue, where I had spent 1989 to 1991, and carried on through the park. The physical layout was the same, and road names were firing off long-dormant dendrites, but everything seemed to have been renovated and renewed. New, largely sympathetic developments had replaced eyesores I had long forgotten. Bus stops had digital displays showing when the services were due. It felt as though I had been delivered overnight into the future.

These changes would have seemed imperceptible if I had stayed in the town or even visited regularly, but experienced at once rather than cumulatively, they really were the closest thing to time travel I am ever like to undertake.

I was feeling fit and energised so I decided to press on from the park to Tilehurst. I was uplifted, feeling a sense of closure and reconciliation. I'd spent 8 years in this place, and it was an inescapable part of me that I'd been denying for the next 11. Everying you do, everything that happens to you, good, or bad, is formative. I think it was as I was running through Tilehurst that I emotionally accepted that the years I'd spent here weren't in any way wasted.

Tilehurst hadn't been renewed as much as the places en route. There was an utterly incongruous BT installation dumped on the fringe of the estate I lived on, and I thought for one moment that my house had been demolished. At the age of 41, jogging around the Potteries development, I found more footpaths and woods than I had known in the five years I lived there, when I was an impatient cynic who drove everywhere, apart from when falling back on Shank's pony to get to the pub by the quickest route possible.

Night was falling, but Marillion helped keep my spirits up, as I headed back down the hill into Reading. I felt reconnected, more whole, as if I had traversed a huge distance and found myself at the other end.

I'm reading Space by Stephen Baxter at the moment, in which space travellers return to Earth aged only a few years, but decades into their futures due to the relativistic effects of their voyages. This week, I can sympathise with these accidental time travellers more than I would have been able at any other time.