Welcome to my adventures and experiments in creativity. Where writing is like running: sometimes I know where I'm going, and sometimes I see where the mood takes me.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Stuck In The Past

Contain thy surprise at the following statement, but I have a friend.

More than one, in fact. Two, at the very least. But this is about one friend in particular.

We both did well at school, and I merrily skipped straight into adulthood by going to work rather than university. My friend, meanwhile, eyed the opportunities offered by academia and began paving a smooth road through every challenge along the way: a degree in biochemistry at Oxford, the discovery of a gene, and a year spent working at a laboratory in New York before transferring back to the UK.

Impressive, I’m sure you’ll agree.

She recently got in touch to offer her congratulations on me not disgracing myself on the BBC1 quiz show Pointless (a whole other story which probably deserves telling sometime). It’s hard to believe that saying, “Ivory Coast” on television can be considered impressive to somebody who has discovered a gene, but everything’s relative and I appreciated the sentiment.

“How are things at the lab?” I asked in return.

“Good,” came the reply, “but writing a review and had to give a big talk yesterday, so was stressing about that.”

Now then. It’s good to take stock of your life every once in a while. Yes, everything’s relative, and no, comparing yourself to others probably isn’t healthy. But it doesn’t harm to reflect on your ambitions. Remember the potential you once possessed, and maybe still do. Remind yourself that nearly anything is possible with the right level of application. Writing reviews and giving talks sounds like important work. Maybe doing U-value calculations – providing assistance on construction and matters of insulation – sounds important to other people. Even so, it’s difficult not to wonder sometimes if you’re squandering this one chance at life…

“Yesterday,” I said, wallowing in the irony, “I bought a sticker album.”

It was true. As a child, I routinely collected Merlin’s Premier League stickers. Indulged in the habit by my Grandma, who would treat me to five or ten packets when we went shopping on a Saturday (in those days, a packet of stickers only cost 10 or 20p), I completed the albums for three or four consecutive years. And so it was that in Tesco the other lunchtime, a craze of nostalgia consumed me. Made me blind to the fact that a packet of stickers now costs 50p. With the European Football Championships barely a week away, made me think that it would be fun to revisit that strange old habit of childhood. I wouldn’t have anyone to swap spares with, but that didn’t have to matter.

The initial batch of 50 or so stickers yielded a decent selection, with only a couple of spares (does anyone need John O’Shea?). Reality set in quickly, however. 540 blank spaces of reality. A Premier League season lasts ten months. Seems even longer to a 12 year old boy; gives plenty of time to build a collection. It seemed sensible to assume that Euro 2012 stickers wouldn’t be sold for long after the tournament, so I wasn’t going to make much of a dent buying only a few packets a week.

There was an answer. Not sure what my Grandma would have made of it, but Amazon offered the opportunity to buy a box of 100 packets at 80% of the retail cost. In this age of instant gratification – with the exception of choosing free delivery, thus having to wait a few extra days – it was only fitting that the internet should come to my rescue. How could I refuse? And how else could I possibly assemble all those cynical excuses for numbered bits of paper?

I mean, a double page dedicated to a translation of the tournament slogan – ‘CREATING HISTORY TOGETHER’ – for each country? Really? Was it always like that? It could quite easily have been 526 blank spaces.

But then I received my 100 packets of stickers in the post. Spent three hours filling the album, carefully stacking spares in numerical order. Derived an unusual joy from watching the pages fill up, piecing together the jigsaw bit by bit. Some of the shiny stickers were most underwhelming, but some of them had an impressive quality. It was all about instant gratification again – a harmless binge on Panini stickers that raised a couple of interesting questions about probability when the 100th and final packet turned out to have no spares in it.

It’s doubtful that such a minor mathematical curiosity is worth the money spent on the stickers. But there is something reassuring in the fact that, even 16 years after last assembling a sticker collection, it is possible to revisit the experience. Like watching old episodes of Bullseye on Challenge TV, it gives some context to those faded childhood photos in your head. Makes you feel a little more complete as a human being.

Sadly, the same cannot be said of the Euro 2012 album. It is 64 stickers shy of completion, and the maximum that can be ordered from the publishers is 50. Luckily, the second of my two friends happens to be collecting them as well, so maybe we can have a swapping session at the pub.

Oh, and it turns out you can now order those last few stickers online, with a 10% discount compared to orders sent in by post. So no need for me to get a cheque or postal order to send with my carefully handwritten form. Boy, childhood really ain’t what it used to be.

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