Are you local, a stranger barked at me in an existential manner as I left a Suffolk resturant recently, passing by her table. OK, she wasn't purposefully existential, despite her question giving me much pause for thought. She was nosy and forthright. It was as if, on seeing a stranger's face in a place where strangers usually aren't, her mouth had circumnavigated social etiquette. "How very Royston Vasey," I smiled, doing the sort of smile I typically save for tone-deaf carol-singers. Then I scooted out of the door, feeling slightly wounded, into the parky East Anglian air.
"What was that about?" said my bloke, who in all fairness had exacerbated the situation by eating his lamb shank while wearing, on his face, a beard. It's one of those beards that London types have which might lead the non-clued to think he'd recently been held hostage. They're all the rage in cities. To add further consternation, he'd finished his dinner by discreetly sucking on a vape-style e-cigarette while I drank a small glass of port. We'd made a complete display of ourselves.
"Oh it was nothing," I said. "We aren't local. I think she just wanted more information about us. So our strangeness would make more sense to her." "She was just rude," he replied. "No… I think she just found us a bit, um, challenging," I said, realising that I was smoothing over her backwards-thinking with modern, cod-psychology bobbins. We walked home to our holiday cottage. It wasn't home, but it felt like home because the labrador, our iPhone charger, and a small jar of Gold Blend were there. If I'm completely honest, this is all I need to set up shop. "I don't think I've ever felt truly local," I mused.
And this really is the case. I'm sure I'm not alone. As a schoolgirl, I was definitely "a local" in Cumbria, but really only just. I always had one eye on the door. There never seemed any shortage of Biffa Bacon-types in the school years above me willing to punch me squarely in the face for not being enormously "regular". "You walk about like you think you're it," I'd frequently be told by some scrunch-faced bruiser, typically for things like being spotted in Morrison's browsing the shelves of budget-sticker taramasalata. I mean, who did I think I was? Princess sodding Margaret?
I moved to Scotland at the age of 18, where as an English person I was the antithesis of local. "You're OK, you are Grace," I'd be told at least thrice-weekly, and the love was mutual. "But we f****** hate all you English Rahs."
It took me several years in Scotland to assertain who these awful-sounding "Rahs" were who prevented me being local. They turned out to be a fictional but infuriating group of men called Tarquin and Rupert, clad in Hunter jackets and Oxbridge mortar boards. These Rahs spent all day plotting over North Sea oil reserves and laughing cruelly about the 1746 Dress Act which banned tartan. "But I don't know any English people like this!" I'd say. It was fruitless. I'd grown up nine miles from Gretna Green, just on the wrong side of the border. But I loved you Scotland! You were more than just a holiday romance!
Then I moved to London where I've stayed for over 20 years and absolutely nobody is local. Or maybe all 8.63 million of us are, but in different, transient ways. Does 10 years living in the same house make me local? Surely I'm more local than the latest influx of young, cheekboned things who've livened up my boozer with their Sunday jazz quartets and their craft ales. Yet to some of the east London old guard I meet while walking the dog, I'm a gentrifier and a johnny-come-lately.
So when I come across someone like Suffolk's "Are you local?" woman, I feel the tiniest twinge of jealousy. Because here is a woman who knows for certain where she's from and wears her roots, albeit rudely, like a lanyard. She's a local. Not for this woman the difficult small-talk with taxi-drivers wanting to know, "Where are you originally from?" No filling in forms and puzzling over the space marked "home town". No stinging compulsion to be up north spending time with sick relatives, and then, on arrival, feeling a visceral urge to be back down south, where your own bed is.
The following day we went for a pint in a deserted pub, only to find one of the larger tables had a "Reserved for Locals" sign on it. This was just in case outsiders – of whom there were practically none – stole seats from locals, of whom there were also practically none.
It took a lot of willpower not to order a bottle of Shiraz, sit down at that table and wait for a postcode-based altercation to occur. Perhaps, I thought, someone might specify exactly which part of the country I should piss off back to. Half my life is over and I've never felt truly local. At this point I'll take all the advice I can get.
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