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.