SIGN OF THE TIMES

The tram bulges with people wanting release. A few days ago there was a hint of seasonal cheer getting about town, but the other side of Christmas suspicion is once again the default mode, goodwill depleted on unwelcome relatives and the stench of unfulfilled desires - to love and be loved, or at any rate get some decent presents. Step away from home's tensions, maybe snap up a bargain if you're lucky. 

I get off the tram to catch a Medilink bus over to Nottingham's biggest hospital. The service used to be free, now costs £1.20. No complaint about that, the fee an acknowledgement of the era we live in. It's 2017 - the NHS is headed by Jeremy Hunt, a habitual liar who co-wrote a book arguing for its privatisation, and the organisation's money is being pissed away on serial offender Richard Branson, who took the NHS to court protesting not only should he have won a contract to deliver children's health services in Surrey, but is entitled to compensation having lost.

Thankfully the hospital is just a convenient stopping off point, a stroll away from a walk in the grounds of Wollaton Hall with a friend. I spot her red coat, and we make our way to the utilitarian entrance, through to the other side. Only a wall separates us from a busy A road, but that's all you need when on the other side are deer, trees, and centuries-old paths. I was last here on Halloween, an impromptu decision to embrace older traditions that declared it a year-end, somewhere to reflect and refresh. Now another new year is close, and I'm Branson-greedy for a second bite of the cherry, this time with a berry-coated companion.

There's a tree stump we come on at just the right moment, discovered on my last visit. The centre is eaten away, but it's alive with mulch, mildew, and beetles. We sit and compare notes on the year, then make our way up an incline to a courtyard where a cafe can be found, and continue our conversation with coffees in hand. For both of us, there's a sense of moving forward with what matters to us, and too of being snared by the inevitable consequences of being social animals. We learn. We love. We get hurt. We carry on. Knowing people we can share our latest findings with makes the passage easier.

And then we're out of the park, arcing back towards where we started. We hug, the contact an affirmation as much as our words, and I branch off down Triumph Road. The name hints at the architecture of the university buildings dotted along it, eco-friendly optimistic designs demonstrating a faith in the future that works in its own right, but seems like a science fiction dream just a few streets away.

Austerity feels like hungry dogs wandering a neighbourhood that didn't seem so unsettling last time I passed through a few weeks ago. I could be mistaken for a bulked-up Travis Bickle from a distance, say behind the blanked-out windows of passing cars. Around here, I used to know people who ran projects for the community. There are children, but the parents with them walk fast and don't make eye contact - and why would they, if I look like Bickle? A teenager runs across the road and I can't tell if she's 14 or 34 by the time she gets nearer, in a white top with black Mickey Mouse faces, black skirt with white circles the same size as the rodent skulls, furry slippers with pom-poms.

The gun shop has crossbows and samurai swords in the window, too, and the only bigger stores are owned by adjacent bookmakers. Malevolent electricity trickles into the atmosphere throughout, a feel that anything could happen and possibly already is just a street away. Even some of the familiar names don't gel here - a pub converted into a supermarket that won't be showcased in the chain's annual report and may not last until the next is put together. It sits next to a car wash with the chill edge of a Mexican police operation. Stark white light frames an area set back from the road where men wield squeegees and buckets like they're anticipating conflict. 

Past threadbare Caribbean takeaways, minimalist barbers where all that's needed is a chair and a razor, a former corner pub now a Middle Eastern grill with a sign in the window promoting Bar Juice, and I stop at Asda. As well as picking up a few reduced items, I use the toilet. The swastika on the inside of the door that had been bleached off is inked in again.