London is a very odd place.
It’s so, well, happening. Then again, I live in St Annes, which is a little more sedate in comparison.
I went to the capital at the weekend for a reunion – I find it hard to write this next bit without shuddering and feeling profoundly depressed – to mark 20 years since I started university.
I remember when I was 18. Just.
I was happy, full of life, convinced I would change the world, and be able to drink seven pints of lager and spring out of bed at nine the next morning without so much as a hint of a headache. My student friends were the same. We had vitality and ambition.
So at the weekend, when about 15 of us met up in London, it was a sad sight indeed.
At least 50 per cent of the group had no hair, while the hair of the other 50 per cent was grey. And that was just the women.
To say we had aged would be putting it mildly. I didn’t recognise one lad I’d sat next to for more than a year. Back then he had long scraggly hair down to his shoulders. Now he had a comb-over that even Bobby Charlton would dismiss as unfashionable.
There were more bags, wrinkles and double chins than in an episode of Dad’s Army.
But despite the fact we didn’t look so hot, we had a good time and enjoyed reminiscing about days gone by and what we were all up to now (one girl, who said barely anything back in the day and wore a tatty cardigan to every lecture, is now a multi-millionaire businesswoman who runs her own string of lingerie shops).
The downside to the reunion was that it took place in London.
It’s a long way to go for us northern folk – a four-hour drive to reach the M25, then another four hours to cover the remaining eight miles to the capital.
The traffic is astonishing. I’m the kind of bloke who gets mildly impatient when there’s more than six cars heading into St Annes. In London, after we’d stayed out much later than we should have, myself and a friend got a bus to our hotel in nearby Stratford and were incredulous to find – at half four in the morning – the bus stationary, stuck in a traffic jam.
If New York is the place that never sleeps, London barely takes even a 20-minute power-nap.
But it is, of course, a beautiful city and there are few better thrills than walking along the Thames and taking in Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament or St Paul’s Cathedral.
However, it is only a few hours before I am reminded of why I could never live there.
There are people everywhere and at all times.
We held our reunion on a barge on the Thames (£5.20 a pint… I almost threw myself overboard in disgust) and afterwards, dashing my hopes of getting back to my hotel bed for some much-needed sleep, one of the girls suggested we eat. It was half three in the morning so I imagined she meant some form of cheap takeaway burger or pizza.
Instead she led us to a restaurant. Not only was it open in the middle of the night but it was full. We had to wait 15 minutes for a table to become available and then my university friends (all of whom bar one live in London) began ordering three-course meals off the menu.
I was astonished. The last food I have of an evening is a slice of lightly buttered toast and a milky coffee at about 10.30pm. Here they were, five hours later, ordering seafood platters and steaks.
It is all very exciting but a little too much for a small town lad like myself.
I got about three hours sleep and was shattered when it came to driving back up north later that morning.
Next time, I’ll be voting we hold our reunion in St Annes. That way we’ll eat at a decent hour and all be in bed for midnight.
Mind you, if it’s another 20 years before we meet up again, then that’s as late as we’ll physically be able to stay up anyway.
Why we should cherish bonkers Games
I assume you’ve caught a bit of the Commonwealth Games?
They’re pretty much exactly like the Olympics except with slightly less good athletes.
Glasgow is doing a grand job of hosting it and as happens every time one of these big events comes around, it gives us an opportunity to watch sports we would never ever usually dream of watching.
Take the Men’s full-bore Queen’s Prize individual, which sounds like something you’d find at a summer fete rather than at one of the world’s major sporting extravaganzas.
It consists of various middle-aged blokes holding dangerous looking rifles and firing them.
If I was a spectator, I’d be worried.
An English chap called David Luckman won gold (he’s 38 and looks uncannily like a geography teacher, albeit a geography teacher with a gun) and, in accordance with the tradition of the annual event (which dates back to 1860), he was carried to the medal ceremony by his fellow competitors in a Sedan chair.
All slightly bonkers but entertaining, and which sums up why we should cherish the Commonwealth Games.
They might not be as swanky as the Olympics but they are often a damn sight more interesting.
Some of the human interest stories that emerge – usually involving athletes from the smaller nations, those who don’t have fancy sponsorship or funding and have to do things off their own back – are terrific and inspiring. My favourite tale involves Taoriba Biniati, a demure-looking young woman who represented Kiribati in the boxing. Kiribati is a string of tiny islands in the Pacific, islands expected to disappear within the next 30 years because of rising sea levels, and Biniati is the only female boxer in the country.
Prior to arriving in Glasgow, she had never been in a ring (the Kiribati boxing club consists of a punch bag hanging from a breadfruit tree) and as there are no other women fighters around. Biniati had only ever boxed with men… though none of them wanted to hit the 18-year-old because she looked so sweet and innocent.
It was perhaps no surprise that Biniati lost (outclassed over four two-minute rounds by a Mauritian opponent) but if that doesn’t sum up the beauty of the Commonwealth Games, then I don’t know what does.
It might not be the Olympics but at least it has soul.