Monday, 12 December 2005

Dundee. 11th December 2005.

I'd actually done a bit of sort of research ahead of visiting Dundee, but even so, my preconceptions were still pretty random. Some weeks previous I’d borrowed a DVD of pre-war documentaries about the city. Aside from the predictable account of the Tay Bridge rail disaster, and a 1930s trailer for the then state-of-the-art local cinema, there was a short Ministry of Information film about juvenile delinquency in the city, full of hatchet-faced do-gooders and snot-nosed lads with short back and sandpaper haircuts.

The youthful spirit of aimless mischief seems alive still. In Dundee's branch of the neatly named but sloppily punctuated pound shop Quid’s In, two ginger haired boys were lurking in the aisles shouting the word ‘Shite!’ at random moments. Credit where credit’s due, they did actually seem to be throwing their voices, a dying art that was lost on the sales assistant who shouted a distinctly half-hearted ‘Aye and don’t bother coming back,’ as they exited, guffawing heartily.

I don't know if research has been done into connections between any perceived delinquency problem and the city’s association with comics like the Dandy and the Beano, and frankly I don’t want to spoil things by finding out. But if one of the preconditions for behaviour of a Dennis the Menace bent is a prevailing atmosphere of uptight decorum, then Dundee’s got it in spades. The statue of Desperate Dan and Minnie the Minx in the city square seemed incongruous, self-conscious, like the efforts of a peppermint sucking, be-cardiganned librarian to show they can take a joke like the best of them.

The cultural life of the town was apparently in a dormant phase. The McManus museum and gallery were shut for refurbishment for the next three years, which seemed excessive. What are they doing? Rebuilding them brick by brick, wearing oven gloves? The galleries at the Dundee Contemporary Arts Centre were closed between exhibitions, and in an irritating flurry of synchronicity the toilets were shut too. I attempted to reach an observatory on the outskirts but was thwarted by a succession of bus drivers who gamely reeled off the numbers of buses that would take me there, if only they ran on Sundays.

At a loose end, I wandered into a collectors’ fair in the civic hall. As I browsed near the entrance an elderly woman was having a confused conversation with the man collecting the admission fee.
‘It’s seventy pence, dear.’
‘Seventy pence? What is?’
‘Seventy pence to get in.’
Nearby, a man of about the same age as the confused woman turned to his wife and said, in a voice dripping with self-pity and hurt, ‘That woman’s being asked for seventy pence. I was asked for a pound!’
In the absence of anything more edifying to do I went and got a haircut. I’m with Winston Churchill when it comes to barber etiquette. Once, when asked how he wanted his hair cut, he famously replied, ‘In silence’. The woman who cut my hair was having none of it. I struggled to smile and nod in the right places in the face of an accent so thick that she sounded like a small dog repeatedly sneezing.
Opposite the barbers was Dundee’s premier nightclub, Déjà Vu, which I’m convinced was converted from the 1930s cinema featured on the DVD. How the mighty are fallen. It looked like the sort of place where your feet stick to the carpet if you stand still too long. There are probably sociological essays written on the significance of night club names in crap towns. Déjà Vu had a depressing Del Boy pretentiousness about it; let’s call it something foreign, it’ll sound classy. There's at least one other nightclub called Déjà Vu. It's in Dartford. I know this because when I worked in Erith a lot of my colleagues used to go there, mostly for the purposes of extra-marital casual sex. Workmates would ask me if I’d ever been to Déjà Vu, often enough for me to come up with the answer, ‘No. But I keep getting the feeling I have.’ They’d just look at me, nonplussed.

On my way to the bus-station I spotted a B and B with a promotion offering a three night stay for the price of two nights. Earlier in the day I might have seen this as generous but as the rain began to lash down it seemed about as appealing as one of those all you can eat buffets where you’ve had enough after a plate and a half.

Saturday, 10 December 2005

Liverpool. 7th and 8th December 2005.

I’m a big fan of the old school Bed and Breakfast but sometimes you come across one that bears out the theory that people who set up small businesses often do so because they’re too daft to get a job working for anybody else.
Despite booking in advance by email I got to the B and B in Liverpool to find that nobody was expecting me. It took a good twenty minutes of wrangling to sort a room, which I'd already paid for.
At breakfast the next day the manager gave me the lamest excuse I’ve ever heard coming from somebody over the age of nine. He claimed my email address, which includes the word paperjam, had caused confusion as he’d assumed my surname was Paperjam. Presumably he thought I was descended from a long line of photocopier engineers. It pleases me to think he could have been sincere. I sometimes imagine him rattling around his guesthouse contentedly muttering, ‘That Mr Hotmail obviously enjoyed his stay; he’s recommended us to all his relatives.’

Sunday, 4 December 2005

Bath. 2nd December 2005.

Bath didn't create much of an impression with me. Maybe to pay proper attention I need to travel alone. Or it might be the place's fault. For all my mithering elsewhere about the proliferation of anytowns dominated by retail chains, Bath proves there’s an equally numbing alternative at the opposite extreme. It felt like a theme park based on a BBC costume drama, the kind of place that Laura Ashley wallpaper goes to die. Among the evidence of its reluctance to acknowledge the twenty first century fads was the fact that, two days outside the peak tourist season, nearly all the museums had closed early for the weekend.

Our Plan B was a pub lunch, an experience which showed that, despite it all, there’s still such a thing as local. I ordered a second pint. The barman looked at the empty in front of me and said, ‘Do you want a clean glass?’ He didn’t actually add, ‘you soft towny ponce,’ but it was strongly implied.
I had a Proustian moment when I ordered the food. He asked, ‘Where are you sitting to?’
I’d forgotten how geographically specific that form of words is. When I first moved to London I worked in a DIY shop in Hammersmith. One day I was carrying some chipboard out to the front of the shop for a customer. I paused and asked, ‘Where’s your car to?’
She looked at me curiously and said, ‘That’s a very Somerset turn of phrase. Where are you from?’
I admitted to coming from Yeovil. She gave a small gasp of recognition. Turned out she had a second home near Yeovil and now recognised me from the shop I’d previously worked in there. I don’t why I wasn't more spooked by this than I was.
I reckon that even now, these examples of local variant grammar could be quite closely plotted on a map of the UK. One of my few bits of supporting evidence comes from a joke told to me by shouty stand-up poet Vic Lambrusco, who, crucially, is from Southampton. It's a joke which, I've always thought, could hardly be more specifically targeted to my personal demographic. It goes like this; a bloke gets into university, late and unexpected, to study English Lit as a mature student. Feeling lost on the first day of term he approaches an academic from the English department and says, ‘Excuse me, but where’s the library to?’
The lecturer looks over his glasses and says, ‘You’re at university now, studying English. And we don’t end a sentence with a preposition.’
So the bloke looks at the academic and says, ‘Alright then, where’s the library to, wanker?’
There are other examples. If you ever get to motor west you’ll notice that somewhere around Reading, the vernacular past tense of the verb to see changes from the Londoner’s ‘see’ to the West Country dweller’s ‘seen’. Fascinating. Radio 4 series’ have been based on less.

The coach back was delayed. As we boarded, the National Express station controller was taping an out of order sign to the toilet door. Responding to my look of concern she said, ‘Somebody’s filled it right up. I’d deal with it but we’re running late.’ Apparently feeling I needed to know more, she added breezily, ‘It’s a real coat-hanger job.’
As we got underway I distracted myself from thoughts of toilets by gazing out of the window. Passing through Chippenham I spotted another addition to my list of perplexing shop signs. We passed a shop called Let’s Face It. Beneath the name was an equally baffling sentence of explanation; 'almost anything transferred onto almost anything else'. I'd imagine they do a lot of passing trade with people who want to know what the sign means, not to mention the occasional drunken smart-arse claiming to want the Lindisfarne gospel tattooed on his midriff.

Friday, 18 November 2005

Birmingham. 16th November 2005.

Signs for businesses sometimes seem like one of the last outposts of expressive individualism. They can still give you the sense that there’s a story lurking. Coming out of Birmingham I saw one for a bed shop which said, Beds Direct; for courtesy, respect and manners. Laudable attributes they might be, but they aren’t obviously bed related.
I visited Birmingham without really touching the sides. The museum and gallery was the only thing that really left an impression. For major visiting exhibitions the gallery has a regular singles only night. I wonder if I emailed them to suggest they rename the evening Gallery Singletons they’d send me a cheque.

Saturday, 5 November 2005

Leeds. 3rd and 4th November 2005.

Some years back, left-leaning intellectuals were characterising call centres as the new sweatshops. Much as I would've quite fancied a job as a left-leaning intellectual, at the time I was working on a call centre dealing with housing benefit enquiries. After I'd been there a few years the department was restructured and the workers' duties expanded to the point where we would field calls about skip licences, disabled badges, and dead dogs in the street. Management saw these new areas of work as involving essentially interchangeable customer service functions. No knowledge was needed, only access to information which could be supplied by software. A new manager was recruited whose previous job was as a supervisor in McDonald’s.
It seems to me this sort of process has spread throughout the culture. We’ve moved to a standardised, tightly-scripted world where information has replaced knowledge. What I suppose I’m curious about on these trips away is whether there is still room for peculiarity and local oddity.

There is if Leeds is anything to go by. The Oxfam shop had a Goth section. I asked the assistant if this was a seasonal thing but was told it wasn’t. In Leeds, clearly, a goth is for life, not just for Halloween.
I located the B and B I'd booked with the help of a white haired woman in a pink outfit which made her look like a sweety mouse. She turned out to be one of the few people in Leeds capable of giving directions. The guest house added a fiver to its prices on the strength of calling itself a private hotel. Something about the manager’s unctiousness suggested suppressed vicousness; like a cross between Alan Bennett and Christopher Walken.
The décor was a frenzy of mismatched embossed wallpaper. It’s nice to know not everybody’s watching interior design TV shows. In 1980, in my first job on leaving school, I was press-ganged into taking a correspondence course run by the Builders’ Merchants Federation which involved memorising, among other things, the names of every pattern of embossed wallpaper on the market. Most of the muck coating the walls of the B an B would've been old hat even back then.

Killing time in my room before going out for the evening, I investigated the Corby trouser press. The back of the plug was hanging off. I considered asking at reception for a screwdriver, particularly as the towel rail had earlier come away in my hand, but I didn’t want to arouse suspicion and later get stiffed with an invoice for damages. So I improvised with a one pence piece.
Inspection revealed that the German for trouser press is hosenbugler, a name which suggests that blowing into trousers is somehow involved. Hitherto I’d assumed the Corby trouser press originated in Corby. I’d developed a half-baked notion it had formed part of the area’s renaissance after the collapse of the steel industry. Turns out the trouser press, or hosenbugler if you will, is actually made in Hampshire and was invented by John Corby. I was fascinated by the guidance diagrams on the device. The first panel showed a man with a briefcase, wearing crumpled trousers. The end panel showed, presumably, the same man with neatly pressed trousers. I couldn’t thinking this was over-egging the instructional pudding; surely the clue’s in the name - the English one at least. What the instructions didn’t mention was that it’s best to empty the trouser pockets before using the press. Alternatively, you can let gravity take its course and spend the next ten minutes retrieving loose change from every corner of the room.
I took a shower before going out for the night. A sign asked me to leave the bathroom as I’d like to find it. I thought, I'm only staying one night, I'm fuced if I'm going to plumb in a radiator.

On my first day I’d found it hard to get a handle on Leeds. It reminded me of Aberdeen in it's apparent lack of desire for outside approval. At first this irritated me. The place seemed inward looking. The woman at the tourist information centre had a map of the city glued to her desk, and it was facing towards her.
Maybe it's not the place's fault but mine. My prior knowledge of the place came from a mish mash of sources. The brochure the tourist office sent me followed the usual template with its obsessons with shopping, and the cursory mention of some museums as a sop to culture anoraks and families wanting to bore their children into passivity. On the coach up I’d read a zine by a bisexual woman from Leeds who worked on a phoneline for battered women and was involved in the remnants of the local riot grrl scene. This, while evidently a partial view, was much more the sort of thing I was expecting. As a teenager I was a fan of several Leeds based bands, like the Mekons, Delta Five and the Gang of Four. Most were ardent politicos, partly as a reaction against local National Front activity. As it turned out, most of the Gang of Four were only at university in Leeds and were actually from Sevenoaks. A few years ago I met a bloke whose dad used to play bridge with the guitarist’s mum.

Earlier in the day I’d visited the city’s main art gallery. In the gallery shop was a book about a local artist whose work had recently been discovered after a lifetime of painting fitted in around his day job as an accountant. Elderly now, now, he’d become frail, leaving his children no choice but to place him in sheltered housing. They found the cupboards and loft of the house he’d lived in most of his life were full of pictures. He’d never sold a painting. Subsequently he was taken on by a private gallery and widely feted.
The icing on the cake of the story would have been if I'd loved his work, but judging by the plates in the book I didn’t think he could paint for toffee. But his story pleased and stayed with me throughout the trip, an anomaly in a time when lightweights and loudmouths most often walk away with the goods. Mysterious how things are valued and made visible.

I went to a gig in the evening. Gigs outside London are often well attended by receptive audiences but tonight's show reminded me of the most depressing features of London’s toilet circuit.
Three bands were playing but there were never more than seven people in the audience, and most of them seemed to have stumbled in by mistake. Among them were three plump bald men in their fifties who looked like brothers who still lived with their mums and might appear in a patronising documentary on Channel Five.
One band was from Oslo. Hopefully they hadn’t come all that way especially. They didn’t really ‘get’ rock music, in the same sense that the French don’t really ‘get’ pop music. The headline band were from Glasgow so had a shorter trip home during which to cry their eyes out.
I knew from experience that none of the bands would have walked away with a penny. The music business pyramid has a very broad base – for every band you've heard of there are a thousand like these, slogging away.
Part of me pities them, but part of me's awestruck at the way they soldier on in the face of indifference. I feel that anybody who makes you wonder why they don’t just give up is usually worth a tip of the hat.

It may be the capacity crowd hoped for at the gig were still roaming the streets looking for the venue because Leeds seemed to be home to more than its share of the geographically challenged. Eight out of ten people I asked for directions didn't know where anything was. They'd struggle to point me towards streets that turned out to be yards away.
Part of the blame goes to the numerous branches of Subway clustered in the city centre. This chain, with its pricing structure more complex than Virgin Trains had three outlets within spitting distance. Two were almost within sight of each other. Disorientation was a natural result. I boarded a local bus and had a moment of panic when I saw a second Subway within minutes. I thought I’d fallen asleep and awoken back where I started having done a complete circuit of the city centre.
But mostly I think that the ability to give directions was a skill people were allowing to atrophy in the face of new technology. Waiting in a Yates’s near the coach station I saw two people go through the same dumb ritual within minutes. Each walked into the bar with a mobile clamped to their ear. Each stopped just inside the pub and briefly scanned the bar before giving up with a look of gormless bewilderment on their face, like sheep at the gate of a strange field. Clearly responding to something said by the person on the other end of the phone each turned through ninety degrees to where their friends sat three tables away, waving. If it’s reached the point where we can’t navigate a medium-sized pub without phoning for help, what hope is there?

Friday, 7 October 2005

Newcastle. 6th and 7th October 2005.

What strikes me in the provinces is the sense of being noticed much more than would happen in London. I went to a gig in a pub opposite the train station. The guy doing the door asked me towards the end of the evening if I was enjoying myself. I can’t imagine a Londoner asking this in similar circumstances unless the ensuing punchline was ‘Try letting your face know then, you miserable looking bastard.’ Even though I’d mentioned that I was from out of town, he gave me a flier for some other gigs he promoted in the city, so it’s possible he suspected me of being an A and R man.
That’s happened to me quite a bit in London, largely, I suspect because I’m of an age where most people have stopped going to gigs. Once people clock that I’m not there to pick up my daughter, or anybody else’s daughter, they seem to assume that I must have a business interest in attending. Strangers have approached me and asked who I work for. When I tell them I work in a library they nod knowingly as if this is some sort of crude cover story. I’ve had demo CDs pressed upon me with a broad wink and the words, ‘Here’s something for you to listen to in the library, mate.’ The drummer of a support band once bounced up to me like a big dog in a small room and said, ‘Here mate, do you work in A and R?’ On the bus home I thought of saying, ‘No. But I once had a Saturday job in M and S if that helps.’
The doorman’s concern for my enjoyment wasn’t a one off. At a Manchester art gallery’s exhibition of punk memorabilia I was looking at some photos of Vivienne Westwood wearing rubber fetish gear, when one of the attendants came up and asked if I was enjoying the exhibition. Still wearing my London head, I immediately felt defensive. It was probably a perfectly innocent enquiry. Or perhaps they’d been having trouble with latex fancying oddballs and it was part of a strategy to stop perverts and gawpers from getting too settled.
Walking to the Newcastle gig I got some more uninvited attention. A thin bloke carrying a tatty pair of Big Issues asked if I could help him out. Following the Big Issue’s own advice I declined as he wasn’t badged and he wasn’t actually on a pitch. He said, ‘Come on for fuck’s sake. I haven’t eaten for two days.’
I thought better of coming out with the stock response, ‘Force yourself, mate. You’ll make yourself ill if you carry on like that.’
I’ve a feeling he’d spotted me as an outsider because I was wearing a jacket and it was only October. The stereotype of Geordies swanning around in minimal clothing in the bleak midwinter seems a true one, but otherwise the place supplied a reasonable number of surprises. Not least of these was that I understood the accent easily. I think context counts for a lot. When I’ve met Geordies in London they’ve often sounded like Norwegians talking through a wah-wah pedal, but on their home turf I adjusted without difficulty.
Returning to the B and B I swear I walked past a block of flats called Valium Towers. I’d phone the council to check but I’m afraid the signage might have been put there by pranksters and I don’t want to blow the gaffe. That was the second pleasing sign of the day. On the coach up I went past a sign for a fast food outlet called All Pizzas Great and Small.
I went down for breakfast early the next morning. Some Dutch Christians made themselves at home at my table and promptly started saying grace. I did my best to sit in a way that indicated to other diners that I wasn’t actually with the God squad, without appearing actively rude. They seemed determined to engage me in small talk. I was having none of it. I got through breakfast as quickly as possible. At the time I was trying to lose a bit of weight. As it turned I’d come to the right place; the portions were tiny.
One of the pleasures of staying in B and Bs is that the staff aren’t dragooned into the sort of impersonal arselicking enforced at chain hotels. It spares the staff humiliation and myself embarrassment. Having said that, I felt the fact that nobody was in when I arrived at the arranged time at the Newcastle B and B was nudging things slightly too far in the direction of informality.
With bed and breakfasts you don’t get a standard product. This applied particularly to the architecture of the Newcastle guesthouse. It was squeezed above a plant hire shop and a Chinese chippy. Inside, it resembled one of those crazy houses you get at amusement parks; there wasn’t a right angle in the place. My room was in the loft, which had apparently been converted by an alumni of the Norman Wisdom school of carpentry. What looked to my untrained eye very much like a crucial supporting joist had been cut away to make space for the en suite. I suspect the proprietor was a jobbing builder who’d gone into early retirement, perhaps at the request of the local Trading Standards department.
I remember reading recent statistics stating that the average art gallery visitor spends 7 seconds looking at each picture. I may be to blame. Between 10am and 3pm I ‘did’ six of the cities galleries. Newcastle has an impressive number of art spaces, yet I only saw one charity shop and no pound shops; what are these people thinking? The six I visited ranged from the Laing, one of those leaden municipal places that suck the life out of you as you browse, to the insistently modern Baltic, full of school parties and attendants who look like they’re just filling in until their band gets signed, ie never.
Most irritating of the art was by Santiago Sierra, who if nothing else has got to be in the running for sponsorship by a car manufacturer. His piece was a video installation showing six young, poor, black Americans who’d been paid by the artist to have a ten inch line tattooed on their backs. This, apparently, was a commentary on the materialism of US culture. It struck me as a bit like farting in a cowshed to draw attention to the smell of shit.
Further irritation followed on the coach journey home. Three seats along sat a buffoon from Sheffield who spent the start of the journey necking can after can of Foster’s, singing to himself, farting, whistling, mooing at cows, baaing at sheep and bragging on his mobile about the brawl he’d been in the night before. At a rest break at a nameless service station he failed to rejoin the coach and we left without him, to general glee. He’s probably still there. I hope so.
When I told my mate Sean the Obscure of my cut price excursions he predicted that Megabus would be populated by the likes of the Sheffield buffoon, but that hasn’t been the case. The one exception was en route to Aberdeen. Two burly women in sportswear got progressively tired and emotional on Diamond White, and began trading insults. The row hit the buffers when the bigger of the two trumped the other’s, ‘Well at least I haven’t got Hep C!’ with ‘Yes you have, you bitch. You’ve got Hep C and Hep B!’ Oscar Wilde eat your heart out.

Saturday, 27 August 2005

Scotland. 22nd to 26th August 2005.

Arriving in Glasgow I got on the wrong bus, which took me through a vast hinterland of council housing. The area looked immediately familiar from Ken Loach’s film, Sweet Sixteen, a grim tale of heroin dealing and hardmen. Shops were few and most had been boarded up. Every available wall seemed to have been scrawled upon. The southern fashion for making graffiti look interesting and distinctive clearly hadn’t filtered out this far. I expected to see a badly drawn cock round every corner.
At every other junction were bleak windowless pubs which looked like supersized coal bunkers that somebody had tarted up very slightly. Some years back Glasgow rebranded itself with the slogan, Glasgow; miles better. As I hopped off the bus at a park and ride stand on the outskirts I couldn’t help wondering what it was like before.
But once I’d found the centre the place grew on me. It had a fine selection of art galleries and even better selection of poundshops so scored highly on my wish-list of requirements for cities. I’d read that Glasgow has more alcoholics per capita than anywhere else in Europe, but if it does, the drunks are inconspicuous and well behaved. On a night out I felt safer than I have in any other major city, partly perhaps because the city’s nightlife runs to such a late schedule. In London at half eleven people are wondering about last tubes and making it home without getting their throats cut, but in Glasgow the evening hasn’t even started properly.
Aberdeen, in contrast, seemed more obviously like a drinking town. I saw several fresh pools of vomit on the pavement around teatime. Their locations and contents suggested they weren’t supplied by the same person. Lone men lurched from pubs in the early afternoon wobbly on their pins, their soft-boiled eyes swimming helplessly.
The city gave the impression of being a place that keeps itself to itself, that minds its own business, secure in its position tucked away beyond the reach of all but the determinedly curious or the curiously determined. All but the most recent buildings are constructed from granite the colour of storm-clouds, architecture with a face that only a mother could love. The posters on bus-shelters encouraging visitors and locals to ‘keep Aberdeen beautiful,’ were optimistic and too late, I felt.
It’s a city with an oddly mixed identity. The university has given it a residual sense of austere gentility as well as an odd preponderance of pubs with a horror theme, presumably some pub managers’ idea of catering to student zaniness. One of these billed itself as the world famous Frankenstien pub. I can’t believe the Trades Descriptions Act doesn’t cover claims like that. Oddly for a city full of such committed drinkers there seemed to a belief among publicans that offering some form of interior design novelty was the best way to hook in the punters. A bar near the harbour had a television screen set into the brushed steel trough urinal in the gents. This took me aback when I spotted it. I looked down to see a man in a suit and tie giving a news report to camera. At some subconscious level I mistook the screen for a window, and the experience haunted me for the rest of the day.
The other influence in the local culture is the connection to the North Sea oil industry which has given Aberdeen a slight Wild West feel down near the docks. I paused on the waterfront to look in the window of the sort of clothing shop that’s all but died out; not macho enough to be army surplus, too shabby to be a gents’ outfitter. The glass in the window actually seemed to have yellowed with age. In one corner was a small pile of flies that had evidently got lost, then died. It struck me how refreshing it is that in a marketing-saturated world shops like this still exist for no better reason than the owner’s quixotic desire to bring thermal socks and penknives to the world.
Just then, a woman approached. She was soberly dressed in office wear. As she came level with me she smiled and, apparently, wished me a happy Christmas. As it was early September, I thanked her and smiled politely in case she was unwell. She frowned and walked on. I realised a few moments later that she’d offered me business.
That evening I ate at a chippy just north of Union Street. It offered various specimens of mystery meat, all encased in golden batter glistening with hot fat. It also did a brisk trade in cut-price cigarettes, so was quite the one-stop-shop for anyone hell-bent on heart failure. On my usual trawl of the local charity shops I noted Aberdeen had two British Heart Foundation shops, and evidently needed them.
In the Sue Ryder shop a new staff member was being shown the ropes. The manager gestured towards a partially obscured corner where the bric-a-brac was kept. ‘You have to keep an eye on the knick knack corner. We get a lot of theft.’
The newby nodded.
The manager went on. ‘Especially, keep an eye out for anyone who comes in wearing a baseball cap.’
The new volunteer brightened. ‘Oh, aye. Is that like a signal between the thieves, then?’
The manager gave a look that was just the polite side of withering.
I was charmed by the idea that there was an underground network of bric-a-brac blaggers at work in the area, perhaps touring the town’s sheltered housing, touting knocked off knick knacks. I imagined them clocking each other, their baseball caps a marker as unmistakeable as a freemason’s handshake. ‘Alright there, wee man. I see you’re a fellow ornament thief.’
‘Absolutely. Just on my way to knock over the British heart Foundation shop, actually.’
‘Which one?’
‘The one towards the station of course’
‘Mm. Nice choice.’

Such felons could do worse than ship their ill-gotten gewgaws to Perth; it’s got just the right demographic for that kind of tat. It gives off a mix of smugness and embarrassment that Americans would probably see as quintessentially English. Perth is prissy to the point of campness. Despite this, per capita, it still matched Aberdeen in the teatime-vomit-on-pavements stakes. I imagined the inhabitants spending the afternoons plumping cushions and straightening antimacassars, in between regular pauses for liquid refreshment, then taking a late afternoon constitutional rounded off by a good honk near a bus-shelter.
What I liked about Perth was what I liked about all the cities I visited in Scotland, the sense of being in an actual distinct place. Many of the names of shops were appended with the words ‘of Perth’, as if that counted for something. It might smack of snobbery and parochialism, but I’d sooner that than the creeping Swindonisation that’s crept across England like scabies. Certainly, Perth had its retail multiples and burger chains but mostly they were contained in one mall, as if quarantined. I had the sense that each corner was worth turning because I couldn’t predict exactly what would be around it.