Perhaps it’s not until you’ve lived somewhere familiar for a while that it starts to feel less normal and you see things in different light. If you’re hitchhiking across Mongolia or roughing it in a yurt with some nomads in Kyrgyzstan then the wonkiness hits you between the eyes. You have to look a bit closer and pay more attention when you’re living in suburbs and working a desk job doing monkey work. But perhaps the normality is that everywhere is abnormal.
My Mum and Dad’s street is a dinky cul-de-sac in suburban Leeds. Walk down it and you’ll see nice detached houses or semis or little bungalows, neat hedges and lots of leafyness. All average and normal. Nothing to see here, move along please. Apart from the bungalow at number 8 that had a huge family of eastern Europeans living there for months who had a garden party during the summer that lasted two weeks. I think they invited Estonia. I don’t know what they were celebrating but it looked like a lot of fun. They all moved out about a month ago and last week while it was empty there was a fire that completely ravaged the placed and since then the blackened, half-melted furniture has sat on the front garden and the driveway waiting for somebody to do something about it while everybody does the opposite.
Next to the former eastern European immigrant party fire house there’s a big old red bricked house occupied by a man who does his gardening in a shirt and tie. I’ve always wondered if he wears his gardening clothes to business meetings. Anyway, it’s a bit disconcerting seeing a man in smart attire cutting a hedge on a Saturday afternoon. Next door to him at number four is a family that have semi-feral children and the Dad drives his Porsche like Michael Schumacher drives home when he’s desperate for a shit.
Over the road from the burned out house is a home that looks like it was designed by three year old. Give a child a red pen and a piece of paper and they’d draw this house. They seem like a nice enough family but they run a printing business out of the garage and the office above it so technically it’s not a residential property. Which means any one of us could put a call in to the correct planning office and either get the business shut down or increase their council tax by about 400%. Might be fun.
Next door to the illegal business lives a thoroughly disagreeable kid who swaggers about as if he’s a thirteen year old Eminem and they live two doors up from a Sri Lankan anaesthetist who lives over the road from a Scottish couple who are retired born-again Christians (retired from work, that is, not Christianity) and they live next door to a house that was, for a short time a few months back, at the centre of a rape allegation against the nobhead youngest son who lived there and the house spent 24 hours covered in police tape and forensics. No charges were brought. The family threw him out. My Mum and Dad live across the road with me, their youngest son, who once fell out of a house in a jungle in Laos and dreams of going to places he’s never even heard of.
And the thing that makes this even stranger is that I barely even speak to these people and don’t really talk to the nice people either – such as the friendly plumber at number seven or the nice old couple two doors down who train guide dogs. But that’s suburban British life. We bemoan the fact that immigrants can’t speak English and don’t join the community but never make conversation with the man at number six who mows his lawn wearing a waistcoat. And that is abnormal.
I’ve also come to appreciate the little idiosyncrasies of Leeds. The fact that it’s littered with Sikh Gurudwaras, Islamic Mosques, Jewish Synagogues, Hindu Temples and stockpiles of churches. A quick search revealed that we have a Roman Catholic Cathedral, the Episcopal seat of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Leeds and places of worship belonging to the Assembly of God, Baptists, Christian Scientists, Mormons, the Community of Christ, Greek Orthodox, Jehovah's Witnesses, Jesus Army, Lutherans, Methodists, Nazarene, Newfrontiers network, the Salvation Army, the Seventh-Day Adventists, the Society of Friends, Unitarians, United Reformists, the Wesleyan Church and an ecumenical Chinese church.
And of course let’s not forget the 21st century religions. There are hundreds and hundreds of places devoted solely to a burgeoning population of people who follow the glorious religion of Undiluted Alcoholism. And then there's omnipresent Latter Day Faith of Capitalism and Frivolous Expenditure which has 210,340 square metres of floor space in the city. That’s 30 square cm of retail for every man, woman and child who live here.
Then there’s the world’s biggest fish and chip shop and Europe’s oldest West Indian Carnival and in 1880 Louis Le Prince recorded the world’s very first moving images with a Leeds back garden as his subject. It’s also a city that houses a higher class of crazy. Every UK city has its fair share of drunks, tramps and layabouts but Leeds’ drunks, tramps and layabouts seem to be a little bit further leftfield from the others. They slump next to the entrance of banks singing and making animal noises. Or they are the smelly bearded men who come up to you at bus stops and start conversations half-way through by saying something like, “But it’s not always like that is it? Sometimes he eats sausages.” And then stare at you expecting a response before sneering and walking off.
So there you go. It turned out that home was just as interesting and weird as everywhere else. Which means I should be happy to stay here now, right? Ah, well, there’s the silly thing - I can’t wait to leave (i might get that on my tombstone) as i’m going to Japan in a few weeks. I’ve managed to get a job there teaching English for few months so we’ll see where i end up and what happens next. It probably won’t be normal. It never is.