Let’s talk about Bristol.
Four years ago, I was a girl with little to no idea where to go or what to do. I had a notion of what I wanted in life, but not the faintest clue on how to get there.
John Lennon sang once, ‘Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.’ I like to think that this is exactly what happened to me when I packed my parents car with all my worldly possessions and drove a hundred and fifty miles (roughly) south west to a city called Bristol.
After a gap year in which I’d travelled across Europe for a period and spent the rest of my time pulling shifts at pubs and picking up odd bits of Extra work with my theatre agency, I was faced with the inevitable task of moving forward or staying put. There has always been a little of the traveller in my blood, though it’s fair to say that I’m truly a homebird at heart. I knew that Derbyshire, despite being the place I would always return to for its scenic, quiet beauty and the family that I hold so dear, would never present me with the opportunities that I was seeking on my goal to becoming an actress. So I chose to study in a place far away, somewhere just busy enough to broaden my horizons but small enough to not be so overwhelmed.
My mother told me that when my family pulled away from my halls of residence that first time without me, they cried all the way to Birmingham. They couldn’t believe they had left me somewhere that, to her, seemed so bleak. In fact she confessed that for the first few months, she hated the sight of Bristol; everything about it seemed grey and oppressive and there was no way I could possibly be happy in place that could never be as green as home.
But Bristol is the opposite of grey. Bristol is vibrant. Bristol is a clusterfuck of colour and sound in the best way possible; from the street art to the people to the skyscrapers of Broadmead to the greens of Ashton Gate. A brief stint of homesickness turned rapidly to exhilaration, excitement.
My first year in this place showed me how easy it can be to make friends when you trust your instincts and look in the right places. My flatmates and I that year got on like a house on fire – something I understand wasn’t exactly a common occurrence in First Year accommodation. We were a mixed bag, that’s for sure, but I made friends there and had experiences I will honestly never forget. That’s the thing about being a writer: the smallest things are important because you can see why they are significant. An outstretched hand is something you will always be thankful for; a moment alone is full of pensive reflection; a back turned when you are begging someone to stay is the most painful stab in chest, something to always remind you that no matter how much you are, you will never quite be enough.
I had my heart broken for the first time that winter, truly broken. One of my favourite poets, Lora Mathis – whom I discovered that year incidentally – writes in one of her pieces, ‘Everything hurts the first time.’ And that’s true. The pain was acute and all-encompassing at the same time. I was a mess but determinedly moving forward. I adored him, I loathed him; such is the dichotomy of love. But I overcame it and it was all thanks to being in Bristol. Despite the constant movement and rush of city life, there is always some quiet calm to be stumbled upon and it helped me heal more than I can say. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I wrote an awful lot of good poetry about that boy.
With my second year, my eyes had been opened to my real potential. Whereas before in Derbyshire I had always felt – egotistically – like a big fish in a small pond, now I saw the reality of talent: every individual I came into contact with had their strengths and weaknesses which in no way correlated with m own. Some of my peers were phenomenal poets, others skilful artists and set designers; some were more academic than I could ever wish to be, some beyond their years in the art of truly letting go of their inhibitions on stage.
Me? What I understand is truth.
Someone I used to know when I was young used to say to me, ‘Always seek the truth, Annie. Nothing else matters in this life as long as you seek the truth.’ Now I used to think she meant stuff like the secrets of the universe or god or enlightenment but now I’m sure it’s a lot simpler than that. I see now that it’s all about human emotion, the connection between two people, the clash of feeling in your heart when you look at a crimson skyline or someone walking away from you. That’s real truth.
A lecturer of mine, and possibly one of the wisest people I’ve ever met, helped me understand that if you look at a situation for what it truly is, no denial, no pretending, just being entirely honest with yourself, you can’t go far wrong. If you are unhappy but go around telling everyone you’re fine, how are you making the situation any better for yourself? If someone has created something that isn’t perfect but you persist in hiding critique, how are you helping them better their work? If you crave someone, truly desire them, yet continue to hide your feelings, aren’t you only creating pain for yourself? I understand things are almost always not so black and white as that but maybe it’s true what they say: sometimes the simplest solution leads to the best outcome.
I won’t hide the fact that I’ve always been a chronic over-thinker. Despite my usually laid-back exterior, if someone cracked open my skull in times of panic they would see that I am in fact not waving but drowning. My time in Bristol has helped me with that. I’ve learned to be more truthful, to ask for what I really need which can help a great deal when you’re suffering. I can perform well because have empathy; I can write well because I understand human reactions to pain and joy. This radar for truth and honesty has led me to better people, surrounding myself with good, decent, kind characters who I would now consider to be friends for life.
Some of the best moments I’ve had in this city were during my time in Hotwells. Myself and some particularly special people made the little flat above the cleaning company into our darling home. I have more memories than I can count from that place, friendships made, shenanigans had, plays written, drunken nights, pirate ships, drama, tension and above all love, love, love. That place was so full of love. I miss it every day.
And then at the start of my third year in Bristol, I fell in love again. Accidentally, warily, childishly. It wasn’t what I expected and in truth, I was completely taken by surprise. They say once you stop looking, it’ll come, right? I mean, that’s just how it happened. All I can say is, he made me very happy for a while.
The hectic, messy, colourful exhaustion of my final year at university led me to a place of fear and ecstasy. I was wonderfully happy but my feet were dipped in all the anxiety that came with an inevitable end. And end it did, slowly but surely, and all too soon.
By the time my fourth year in Bristol came around, pieces of the life I had built began to flake away like peeling paint on an old door. Some of my closest friends moved away and from seeing them every day, we suddenly only contacted each other every few weeks. We said goodbye to our flat on the river and all of the bright sunshiney days we’d spent there. I was essentially homeless for a while and became a bit of a drifter, staying on the sofas of friends (who I am and always will be eternally grateful towards). I went straight into working very demanding jobs and suddenly all of my creativity fell away to be replaced by exhaustion, physical and mental strain. This time around, I didn’t so much have my heart broken, but whatever we were in, we fell out of. I was losing people left and right, even myself in a way. I was hurting; in time, my summer city gave way to winter and this place became this fucking place.
It’s taken a long time to start to feel like myself again.
But the thing is, that’s just me. There are so many people out there who have touched my life that are going through different troubles, different strains. I’ve been living more and more in my head and resenting Bristol for being the place were all this shit happened. This city gave me a lifeline and then took it away again – why shouldn’t I be angry? Why should I continue to love it?
Because it’s impossible not to.
Bristol, I have fallen in love.
I love the heaving black nightclubs at 2am and the frosty quiet at sunrise. I love the colourful politics gracing the buildings in Stokes Croft and the vast, silent beauty of Clifton Suspension Bridge. I love the rubbish and the vomit in hidden corners of Broadmead and the way the surface of the river sparkles whatever the weather. The boats, the cawing of seagulls, the bus engines and street musicians. This city brought me to life again, day after day, whether it was hard or easy. The people I’ve met, the friends I’ve made are present with me now and will never leave, no matter what direction life take us all.
I know I will always find love in this place.
Until the next thing, please be kind to your fellow human beings and good luck with your endeavours.