Once you’re out, it’s too easy to have a dig at the town you escaped from. I spent the majority of my twenties laying into Maidstone, only ever reminiscing about its negative points-a perceived lack of culture, class or a decent Uniqlo. In my eyes it was a place where dreams went to die.
When I was back I’d ruefully look at my friends who never left and wonder just how they stuck around this tinpot town, how they’d walk down the high street and not feel a lingering sense of low as they once again got lashed in The Society Rooms and Kala Red, before ending up in Source, Roadhouse or-if they were fishing for jailbait horror- Beluga Bar.
And it wasn’t just the bars. A wealth of other third world problems stuck in my craw: the lack of a Vietnamese (in 2013); the tedious two-an-hour bus routes; the off licences that closed before 2am, that couldn’t be relied upon to sell pomegranates the size of baby’s heads. Maidstone seemed to adhere so rigidly to the classic British suburban type of conformity and blandness, and to offer so few opportunities to anyone with ambitions beyond that of breeding.
The problem is, living in cities spoils you. Life flies past so fast that’s it all we can do to cling on its coattails. You get used to experiencing the most extreme of everything, every day of the week, whether it’s food, shopping, people, music or badly cut drugs.
With all this in mind, I wasn’t exactly giving thanks for the clash of circumstances that necessitated a move back to my parents’ house over the summer. But as the weeks went past I was came to find that I had grown more and more attached to it, that all the things I previously disliked were, with the hindsight of 8 years dicking around in cities behind me, what gave it strength.
Plus, it must be said, Maidstone has caught up with the 21st century.
Firstly, if you spend a few hours in the newly pedestrianized town centre you’ll notice the number of people around who clearly weren’t born in the town, or anywhere else in the UK.
I remember my secondary school, Cornwallis, had two black kids, out of 1500. That’s a shocking number, and even though I don’t doubt there’s more than a few people (and their politicians) who would consider those days very much halcyon, the emergence of new cultures within the town have helped it shake off its National Front-outpost tag. Now there’s Turkish barbers, Polski skleps, Gurka restaurants and all sorts of places I wouldn’t have dreamed of back in ’99.
The latter stems from the thriving Gurkha population that is based at Maidstone Barracks, who by the looks of things invite the whole family over when they come over to save our days. During the heatwave, I was walking down King Street and saw two old Nepalese boys kicking back at the bus-stop, sharing a steaming thermos- they were mostly toothless, had skin like cowboy boots and were decked out in overalls that sat somewhere between ski jacket and lampshade. And woolly hats! I was considering jumping into the Medway to cool myself down, whilst they looked like they were about to go skiing in Patagonia. Fuck knows what they were going to be wearing in winter, but they were cackling away and gesticulating with locals who walked past. They brought real character to the place.
A big portion of the town has really improved recently, with gleaming jet cleaned brick walkways and actual decent shops (like ZARA and the APPLE STORE, dontcha know) on the newly-ish built shopping precinct, Fremlin’s Walk. It might seem shallow to bang a shopping centre’s drum as a vehicle for positive change, but its ju-ju spreads out like big, capitalist tentacles: Earl Street- one street over and always one of the ‘better’ bits of town- has improved further with more alfresco dining than Albufeira; there’s a French bistro called Frederic’s serving food that tastes like it could have been cooked in France; the Museum, formerly a thoroughly depressing testament to a town with no pride (or finances) invested in its cultural heritage has had some big, gold and glass extension that in reality is a bit tacky but displays that the council give a shit about making people’s brains work harder.
This dedication to education carries on up in Ringlestone, which sits on the edge of town and last April saw a £12 million library and history centre open. It’s got 40,000 books, as well as huge archives of information about Kent’s ancient history. It’s something to be proud of, a 21st century project with an Olde England heart.
Ten minutes from there is the Millenium Park, with its skate ramps and kids’ playground that smashes the arse off anything I’ve found in London. Then there’s the swanky new Gallagher Stadium that’s playing host to a Maidstone United team that is finally giving the town a local club they can root for.
But it’s not just the money, it goes deeper than that. As I’ve previously alluded to, the things that you can’t get in Maidstone are now the things to appreciate. Yes, you can’t rely on buying booze from a shop at 2am, but maybe that’s a good thing. We’ll all got gasping livers- drink what you’ve got and go home. And yes, you might have to wait half an hour if you miss the last number 5 bus, but that’s really your fault for not having a car. Wait your turn at the bus stop with the Marden traveller connection, and for God’s sake laugh at their jokes.
More than anything, though, I grew to like the attitude. In many ways my mates down there are easier souls to get on with. Yes, we go out, get wrecked and whatever, but there’s so much less ego. Most of them really don’t care about what the other person is doing, how many followers they’ve got on Twitter or if the pub they are going to is considered fitting with their social standing. They're generally baggage-free, and though there is a lot to be said for creative types not afrad to express themselves, the Maidstone collectively are refreshingly different to the merry bunch of freakazoids that make up my London crowd.
I suppose the lack of choice in Maidstone means you cannot miss having the option to go somewhere else for longer and with more elan, but as I’m hovering near that 30 mark I wonder whether I need all the choice. Sometimes the simple things are the best and although I‘ve moved back to London recently, it was mainly a career-based decision. For the vast majority of my twenties I always thought I’d end up in the South West when the time came to settle down and stop playing silly buggers: now it would surprise me if it wasn’t my home town.