Tuesday, 26 December 2006

Cirencester 22nd December. 2006

I didn’t warm to Cirencester. There was well-fed self-satisfaction in the air and plentiful evidence of what Detroit’s rabble-rousing MC5 would have referred to as ‘a lot of honkies sitting on a lot of money’. In most towns a staple of charity shop stock is the humble fleece. In Cirencester I didn’t spot a single one, but I did spot three Barbour jackets. I’ve never properly been able to imagine the process through which a fleece ends up on the musty clothes-rails of joy. Does somebody really hoik one out from the back of their wardrobe, try it on for one last time, turn to their significant other and say, ‘Be honest, does it suit me?’

Cirencester somehow had an unreal feel about it, pitched somewhere between Dad's Army's Warmington-on Sea, and what Ambridge might be like if it was ethnically cleansed of the Grundys and their ilk. It's rustic and well-preserved, but somehow cultureless. Not uncultured in the ordinary sense but built around an absence, as if at its core something has been forgotten. All the men looked like if you made eye-contact with them they’d start talking to you about sport or money. For the first time in my life I found myself thinking, what this town needs is a McDonald’s and a Wetherspoons. It must be bleak not being wanted on the voyage round here. Late in the day I saw two teenage black girls outside a hardware shop. I don’t think it was my imagination but they seemed to have hunted look.
Regular readers will know I like some time for quiet reflection before the coach home so I aim to run out of stuff to do slightly early. But not as early as I did in Cirencester. I killed a few hours in a pub on the edge of town. It was evidently a refuge for the Grundy strata of the local population. A bunch of glum-faced men sat in one corner discussing where to spend the rest of their evening. They worked their way through a list of possible pubs, crossing them off in turn as they realised that at least one of their number was barred from each of them. Eventually they came up with a venue everybody was allowed into. The oldest of the group then mumbled through his moustache that he didn’t fancy this last option as he owed the landlady £20.
They resigned themselves to staying put and Moustaches started in on a rambling and shapeless anecdote about a recent abortive trip to a strip club in Swindon. Glamorous! ‘I was supposed to go with Trigger,’ he complained, ‘but you know what he’s like. Twat never turned up.’ As casually as he could manage Moustaches then said, ‘I had three grand in me pocket, and all.’ He didn’t elaborate on the source of this money. I like to think it consisted entirely of twenty pound notes, each borrowed from a different pub landlady.

Sunday, 10 December 2006

Northampton 8th December 2006

There are some lists I carry round in my head. I supplemented a couple of these in Northampton. The shorter one is my list of mis-hearings resulting from the difference in accents that I come across around the country. Hitherto it was a list of one, where I’d convinced myself that a bloke on a hopper bus in Bradford had claimed to be recovering from a chipolata bypass. In Northampton I was mooching around the busy market square. Walking past a butcher’s van I swear the butcher announced over his microphone a special offer of trays of tube-steak for a fiver. I’m not sure why these mis-hearings should be meat-based and vaguely Freudian. Maybe it’s too soon to conclusively identify a pattern.
Another of my lists is the more comprehensive one of rare or obscure charity shops I’ve spotted. Mostly these are shops representing charities I’ve not heard of before, but I’m prepared to also include shops for well-known charities that don’t normally have retails outlets, like, say, the Samaritans shop in Carlisle. You have to wonder how this particular category of shop comes into being. Did the Samaritans think, ‘Right, let’s not go mad. We’ll start out with one shop in Carlisle and see how it goes.’ Then when it didn’t work out perhaps they didn’t have the heart to tell the volunteers in the shop the bad news.
This list doesn’t just represent the idle wool-gathering of an aimless middle-aged loser, although obviously that’s a big part of it. It also has a practical use. As a general rule, the more obscure the charity shop, the cheaper the stock. Near my allotment there’s a Geranium Shop For the Blind, which despite its name is a charity shop and not a really specialised florists. They have a semi-permanent sale where all clothes are £1. They illustrate one of the other principles of charity shopping, namely the white hair to price ratio. The older the staff, the greater the savings to be had. If everyone behind the counter has locks like cotton wool you can reckon on knocking at least a pound off the expected price of any item.
In Northampton I added a shop called Debra to the list. I’ve since assured myself via the good offices of Google that Debra is actually a charity, and not just some chancer called Debra who fancied jumping aboard the charity retailing gravy train. This, along with outlets for Barnardo’s, the Red Cross and the Salvation Army, was sited on Gold Street. These clusters of shops never result in the sort of price war I always hope for. I suspect they operate some sort of cartel, the buggers.

Saturday, 25 November 2006

Gloucester 24th November 2006

Gloucester’s main museum and art gallery is one of the least interesting I’ve seen, but its Folk Museum more than makes up for it. Its focus was on the daily lives of ordinary local people, with lots of artefacts from working life and local industry, but the high point of the permanent exhibition was a mock up of domestic interiors through the 20th century. These always go down a storm with me. I think they appeal to the nosey parker in me; I love the feeling they give you, something like walking past someone’s house at night when they’ve got the curtains open. All the installation lacked was a couple of automata, sat on the sofa having some conversation you could only guess at.
But the icing on the cake was a visiting exhibition on local boy made good, record producer Joe Meek. I say made good, I mean made good, built his own studio over a shoe shop in North London, changed the face of British pop music, became dependent on amphetamines, got sexually obsessed with his blond Germanic protégé Heinz, went a bit bonkers and shot his landlady. It’s a car-crash of a story; terrible and sad, but hard to ignore. The idea of people reinventing themselves seems cheapened these days, when every other daft sod wants to be famous for being famous. But the driven, obsessive way Meek transformed himself from small-town boy to music pioneer by sheer force of will seems almost epic in comparison. He’s mostly remembered now for his big hit, ‘Telstar’, but as the free jukebox of his hits in the exhibition attested, he had a phenomenal work ethic. I could have stood there listening all day.

Sunday, 12 November 2006

Stoke On Trent 10th November 2006

There's not much to see in Stoke On Trent but Webberley’s bookshop is worth a visit. It's not much to look at from the outside, and little better on the inside, with its paintwork the colour of thinly-spread Marmite. But there's something quaint about the place even by the standards of most dog-eared independent bookshops.
The header board of the foreign travel section said ‘overseas holidays’ rather than ‘travel’, as if abroad was a recent invention. I half expected UK travel guides to be shelved under the heading ‘sensible holidays’ and guides to the most exotic destinations to be shelved beneath the warning ‘Here be Monsters.’
The shop proclaimed itself a family business since 1913 as if this is an unambiguous good. I can't honestly say I share that assumption. Heretical as it might be, I think people tend to romanticise small independent businesses, especially when they’re family run.
I once worked in a family-run DIY shop in Hammersmith. I committed the stupid oversight of not being related to the owners. Interbreeding and marriage had assembled a shower of unsuitable incompetents that the most cack-handed interviewing and selection procedure couldn't have matched.
It was a business untouched by the modern managerial mania for constant change. It was the sort of dusty, cluttered hardware shop featured in the well known Two Ronnies ‘four candles’ sketch and it remained pretty much unaltered until it went bust. It was exactly the sort of place where old-fashioned personal service is alleged to live on. Nobody had told the manager, Brian. At least once I saw him tell a customer to fuck off, and he wasn’t above greeting regulars he didn’t like with the words, ‘What can I get you, you horrible prick?’
From what I remember of ‘A’ level Sociology, we abandoned trying to combine family and working life because greater industrialisation demanded a better match between people and the skills required. In family businesses people get humoured and indulged. Lil, the owner's cousin was in charge of stock control at the Hammersmith shop. She wasn’t a natural, but she was allowed to persevere. When I worked there in the mid 1980s I'd occasionally come across items of stock that must have been around since before 1973 because they were priced in pre-decimal currency.
Some similar ill-advised indulgence seemed to be operating on the upper floor of Webberley’s which had a large area devoted to the sale of fountain pens. Maybe some member of the Webberley litter has been allowed his inky little empire because nobody wants to hurt his feelings.
The cultural institutions of the town had a predictable ceramic bent. The council run Potteries museum redeemed itself with an open show in its art gallery. I'm probably a bit old-fashioned art-wise because I usually enjoy open shows more than curated ones, partly because of my enthusiasm for amateurism, but mostly because they tend to feature stuff that looks like stuff.
Deciding I hadn’t quite had enough ceramics for one day I squeezed in a visit to a local family run pottery factory. The factory museum displayed a family tree with mug shots of the firm’s directors down the years. There was an unsettling facial resemblance between them, and I found it hard not to think of Kind Hearts and Coronets.
I've probably been innoculated against the charms of ceramics by the hideous ornamental plates in the back of colour supplements, but there were a couple of pieces that I liked. Among the best were sets of wartime Utility chinaware which due to shortage of materials had a clear glaze revealing the clay colour beneath. But favourite had to be an Army issue teapot, with two spouts to aid the speedy pouring of multiple mugs of tea. Homely genius.

Saturday, 28 October 2006

Dover 27th October 2006

Some towns are the geographical equivalent of pubescence, an unpleasantness you just want to get through with as little delay as possible. Dover, or Swindon-on-Sea as I like to think of it, is one of those places and it knows it. It’s pretty much given up. Many towns have a welcome sign beside the road as you enter – Dover should have one saying, head straight for the ferryport, folks, there’s nothing for you here.
Next time you see the white cliffs on telly, filmed from the sea, notice how the camera never pans left to take in the grey concrete bleakness. The town exhibited at least two symptoms of the English disease. There was the usual interchangeable pedestrianised rank of the usual shops. And there was a shining example of the modern passion for making up new names for old things when we're a bit unsure what to do with the old things any more. Late in the day, with time to kill I spent an irritating 40 minutes hunting the town's library. I couldn’t see any signs for it. Eventually I relented and asked for directions from a woman in a nearby shop. When she'd finished I said, 'Oh, right. So is it near the Discovery Centre?’
She seemed almost embarrassed by association. ‘That’s it, yeah. That’s what they call the library now.’ Christ! See also Wigan.
Dover did have its good points. There was a huge British Heart Foundation furniture store which was having a disco. In the shop, in the afternoon. To celebrate Halloween. All the staff were in fancy dress. Either the manager's some crazed martinet who dictated it should be so, or even odder, the staff decided collectively that this was a beezer idea.
People say there aren't any truly local shops these days. They probably haven’t been paying charity shops as much close attention as I have. But then, who has? I often spot trends in local trading patterns for old tat and cast offs. In Dover’s chazzas, remnants of old wallpaper are all the go. Either Dover's home-decorators are chronically indecisive, or a kleptomaniac's been trawling the local DIY stores shoplifting, and has now come over all Robin Hood. Any road up, if you’ve got a lot of exercise books to cover, head for Dover.
Early afternoon I headed to the Land Army museum. It was tiny, housed in a converted outhouse on a nearby farm, and unstaffed. Reasoning that if there was nobody to pay I couldn’t be expected to pay the admission fee I bunked in for nothing. It’s not the first time I’ve scammed free admission to a museum.
I did something similar at the Energy museum in Amsterdam; the lights were off and nobody was inside. Oddly, on occasions like this, on the way out, I often think the visit was interesting, but just short of interesting enough to warrant the admission fee.
The Land Army museum housed a bijou mix of artefacts, and personal testimony in the form of letters and diaries. I'm strangely drawn to anything about the Home Front. There’s something I find oddly comforting about the period.
I think my generation were the last generation to have proper parents. Not proper, good parents, but proper parenty parents. Parents of a distinct generation who’d been a bit old to swing in the Sixties; parents who didn’t aspire to aping their own kids for as long as they could pull it off.
My mum was formed by the war. She'd learned to cook during rationing; pilchard fishcakes, cheese potato cakes, risotto made with leftovers of sausages and anything else that was knocking about. I can just about remember us having a bucket in the corner of the kitchen filled with a liquid called isinglass which we used to store eggs. It all seems a bit Victorian now.
The final retro flurry of the day took the form of whiling away the last half hour before the coach in a weird little teashop down a backstreet. It impressed me on two fronts. Normally, the ceiling price I’m willing to pay for a cup of tea is fifty pence. As this place was charging 40p I thought I’d push the boat out and have a slice of malted loaf too; price ditto.
As a sideline they sold dried goods loose from large plastic barrels; porridge oats, washing powder, raisins etc, and yet the place wasn't full of smug hippies. Result.
In fact the only other customers were what seemed to be a brother and sister, in late middle-age and apparently living together. There was a child-like innocence about the way they spoke about the evening to come, what they would have for tea, what they’d watch on television. I sense that people like this are fewer or less visible nowadays; not odd enough to be pathologised, too off-kilter for the mainstream.

Saturday, 14 October 2006

Wolverhampton 13th October 2006

A few days after I visited Wolverhampton, I heard a local millionaire on the radio talking about his warehouse of art treasures which he allows the public to view by appointment. If' I'd known it might have livened up my visit.
As it was, there wasn't much to see so I headed out of town. In Monmore Green a woman in a shop confidently gave me hopeless directions to the greyhound track. Why do people do that? I nearly always admit if I don’t know where something is. I try to reserve giving plausible but hopelessly misleading directions for when I’m directing cyclists who’ve asked for help while riding on the pavement.
I’d always fancied going greyhound racing. As this Friday afternoon meet was free it seemed like an opportunity. The track was tucked away near an industrial estate. The punters were all strangely anonymous nondescript men, like extras in a film nobody could be bothered to make. There was a lot of hanging about involved. Before each race, the dogs were walked around an inner track, partly, I suppose, to give the punters a chance to check them out, but largely it seemed, to let the dogs take a dump. Some luckless sod in that ubiquitous anti-status symbol, a be-logoed polo shirt, followed them round with a bucket and a coal shovel scooping up their doings. We could do with him on the road outside my flat.
Although I never really worked out the complexities of the betting system, which seemed more based round the trap the dog came out of than the qualities of the dog itself, I certainly got my money’s worth. There were about fifteen races in the space of ninety minutes. I missed two entire races while buying a cup of tea, and I hadn’t even had to queue up. Magritte described life as consisting mostly of boredom, interrupted by brief moments of panic. I’d imagine that’s about the size of it for greyhounds.
It’s the deception that depresses me. It’s not even a real rabbit. Greyhounds have a relatively short racing life. I’m not sure if they get tired or they just wise up and can’t be bothered anymore. Hence the long faces, perhaps. But then dogs are famously dim. I tend to mistrust people who say they like dogs, much as I’d mistrust someone who professed a liking for thick people.
After the first ten races I felt I’d got the general idea, so took the bus to Bilston. It's a pleasant enough suburban town with some tatty bits. I arrived to find the main art gallery closed for a change of exhibition. I’m sure these places see me coming. The craft gallery was open, with a display of ceramics, but for some reason craft galleries always just seem like poncey shops to me. A few doors down was a bar owned by former Wizzard frontman, Roy Wood. I always wondered what happened to him.
Further along again was a tattoo parlour. The word ‘tattoos’ had a greengrocer’s apostrophe, which struck me as the worst PR I’d seen for a tattooist since the poster for the one who used to operate from above the White Swan in Greenwich. The poster was lettered with wonky Seventies style bubble writing, so not at all offputting as long as you fancy going round looking like a teenager’s school exercise book.
On the coach back to London there was a ferocious smell of sardines on the coach, apparently coming through the air conditioning.

Saturday, 7 October 2006

Derby 6th October 2006

On the coach to Derby they provided laminated information sheets on the dangers of deep vein thrombosis. I browsed the menu of factors that increase the threat of DVT. First on the list was pre-existing clotting abnormality. Breaking in some new glasses, I misread this as pre-existing clothing abnormality. As we pulled out of Golder's Green I entertained myself with visions of the driver checking everybody on board, occasionally tutting and shaking his head saying, ‘That shirt with those trousers? Don’t say you weren’t warned.’
Apparently, malignancy is also a rick factor. Presumably the driver keeps a weather eye out for anybody getting aboard who looks a bit spiteful.
I opted for the luxury of the triple seat at the back, right next to the toilets, so the journey was even more of a feast for the senses than usual. A succession of older black women, seemingly on a chapel outing, took it in turns to avail themselves of the facilities and come out shaking their heads in bafflement. Finally the youngest of them intervened and came out explaining that the white lever was the flush. Several of the others protested that the instructions had clearly stated the lever was yellow.
Later a baby two seats away was sick over its dad. The father took it on the chin. Well, mostly on the chin; some round the neck and the shoulders.
Passing through Loughborough I spotted a hairdresser's called The Head Gardener. I love that sort of thing; stuff like the piercing studio in Manchester called Holier Than Thou or the pizza takeaway I once spotted All Pizzas Great and Small.
I like to imagine there are thousands of small businesses set up for no other reason than that someone made up a brilliant name for them in the pub one night. A lot of them probably fold when the proprietors realise their true vocation lies in making up names for businesses, not in running them, but hey, more power to them I say. I happen to think the world would be a better place for the addition of a chain of second-hand toy shops called Toys R Used, or a restaurant specialising in American cuisine called United Tastes of America. Or a drapery shop called It’s Curtains For You. What’s not to like about a bookmakers called And So To Bet? Who wouldn’t want to shop at a concession within World of Leather stocking backless cushioned seats; the Ottoman Empire? And who could resist eating at a cut-price, avowedly populist raw seafood restaurant called Oi! Sushi!
Marketing flair like that wouldn’t have gone amiss in Derby. The presentation problems start before you’ve properly arrived, as the main route into the city is a bleak stretch of dual carriageway, named Brian Clough Way, in a surely backhanded tribute to the local hero. Outside the town library a huge banner proclaimed the town’s slogan; 'Derby – the city where you can make the most of it'.
I can only wonder what the rejected suggestions from the branding consultants might have been. ‘Derby; Never Mind Eh?’ perhaps. Or ‘Derby; Could Be Worse.’ The same consultants went on to similar success, launching P and O ferries’ celebrated 'Worse Things Happen at Sea' promo campaign, later moving on to help with the launch of that well-known self-help Bible for the underconfidrent; 'You're Shit and You Know You Are'. I might have made up that last bit.
Derby seemed to be in the grip of a compulsion to add the words Ye Olde to the name of any and every kind of business. A couple of these places managed to redeem themselves in my eyes. Ye Olde Dolphin Inne advertised two quizzes a week, with free entry, free curry and rice for all participants and beer prizes. It pains me to admit it but when I see stuff like that, capitalism really does seem pretty grand.
I went into Ye Olde Sweete Shoppe and bought a quarter of Yorkshire mix. Yorkshire Mix consists of what Derby’s branding gurus would probably call Sweet Factory Sweepings, a rainbow mish-mash of broken confectionery. The mix had agglomerated in the jar, but the woman who ran the place kindly hacked at it with a foot-long carving knife to break it into manageable chunks.
What I notice in UK cities is that, compared to London, the people you see around on a Friday morning represent a fairly skewed sample of the population. Not being at work on a weekday apparently carries a freight of meaning in places like this, as I discovered when I asked about hire charges in the library. The librarian looked over her glasses at me and said, ‘Are you a concessionary member? We do some reductions if you’re on benefits.’ Bloody nerve.
Before trawled the museums I ducked into a Scream pub for lunch. They were doing curry, chips and a pint for £2.95. It wasn’t great but at those prices I’d have counted it a bargain provided I managed to hold it down. Next stop was the Industrial Museum. Much of it was too blokey for my liking but the bits based on oral social history were worth a look. And I now know what a shot tower is. If you come away from a daytrip with the answer to at least one pub quiz question it's been time well-spent.
On the way back to the coach station I just had time to check out Reveal Records. It's one of a dying breed of record shops with a genuinely local feel; the counter area plastered with fliers for local gigs, releases by local bands in prime position. In addition to the fairly conventional looking ground floor, it had an entire separate floor for punk and metal, complete with suitably pierced and tattooed staff.
Picture the manager, on a typical Monday morning, approaching one of the ground floor assistants. ‘Reg from Punk and Metal has just rung in sick. Can you cover?’
The assistant looks doubtful.
The manager reaches under the counter and brings out the clip-on facial piercings and the lick-and-stick tattoo transfers. He hands them over to the still-doubtful assistant. ‘Trust me, you’ll be fine.’
Shops like this are disappearing fast, while, oddly, this doesn’t happen with music shops. Music shops are like the cockroaches of independent retailing; apparently indestructible. This despite the inherent misanthropy of people involved in selling musical equipment. In music shops, bitterness and disappointment hang in the air like a roadie’s B.O. Most of the staff are failed musoes who’ve been denied other possible career options by dint of their personalities; too mean spirited and charmless to be music promoters, too thick and sarcastic to be sound engineers.
I pondered the mystery of this as I took my seat on the coach. I looked out of the window as we pulled away. Cottony clouds scudded across a watery full moon. I turned off the reading light and fell asleep.

Wednesday, 27 September 2006

Bradford 25th and 26th September 2006.

You don’t get to pick your travelling companions on National Express, but this is usually made bearable by the unspoken rule that people mostly keep themselves to themselves. It's a rule that's partly based on the knowledge that, unlike on the train, you can't make an excuse and change carriages if the person sat next to you is odious in some way.
Clearly, the flossy-haired nightmare who planted herself next to me at Golder’s Green didn't know the rules. She took against me immediately and it wasn’t long before I was reciprocating with gusto. She was complaining before her arse had even hit the seat. Unhappy that the coach was stuffy she asked me to adjust the ventilation nozzle for her. Getting settled she jabbed the seat belt buckle into my thigh, then complained that the glasses case in my pocket was poking into her. After a few miles she began tutting pointedly because the edge of my jacket had brushed against her. For a while she glared at me in silence as the miles rolled past, until the reason for the glaring was made apparent. She prodded me in the shoulder. ‘Could you move your arm so I can see the view?’ My arm had been resting on the sill of the window; if I’d had biceps like Popeye she could’ve still seen everything the rolling vistas of the Midlands had to offer. By now I hated everything about her, from the orange foundation caked in the crease of her nose to the tea stains on her teeth. Mercifully, she nodded off for a while, until she jolted awake suddenly as we arrived at Bradford. With the natural panic of sudden waking she blurted, ‘Oh dear, is this Bradford?’
I wanted to breezily say, ‘Bradford? Oh no. We’re just pulling into Dundee,’ but I didn’t have the heart.

Bill Bryson wrote that 'Bradford's role in life is to make every place else in the world look better in comparison, and it does this very well.' Fuck him, I loved it.
It’s sometimes overshadowed by its more PR conscious neighbour Leeds, but its lack of pretention appealed to me. It started with the B and B. I like my Bed and Breakfasts at the shabby end of things and this was just the ticket. The carpet in my room looked like it had been rescued from a skip. A kettle was provided, with a lead so short that I could only use it by putting it on the floor. The allowance of teabags (5) and coffee sachets (6) was generous ( Travelodge please note), and they were all Fairtrade. I drank the lot; as the tubs of UHT milk were all out of date I felt entitled. I knew I'd be in for a sleepless night after all that caffeine, but I love free stuff.
Heading out for the evening I checked out the usual rack of local information in the foyer. There was lots of info on ethical tourism. The proprietor and his Goth daughter who helped run the place were obviously people of principle. The next morning I discovered their ethics included a concern for the environment. Mindful of their carbon footprint they’d decided against heating the bath water too much. The cold tap on the bath was firmly stuck, but I’ve a feeling nobody had had cause to use it for a while. I almost felt I should apologise at breakfast for using up all the tepid water.
The dining room was sparsely populated, with a couple of seedy, single-looking men. It was all a bit Graham Greene. There was a vegan breakfast on offer, a first for anywhere I’ve stayed. I’m not vegan but felt I should encourage that sort of thing and considered ordering it. An earnest looking travelling salesman seemed to have the same idea. ‘What’s in the vegan breakfast please?’
The becardiganned hotelier eyed him warily. ‘It’s for vegans. People who don’t consume animal products.’
Smiling enthusiastically the salesman said, ‘Yes, but what do you get in it?’
‘It’s for vegans. Are you a vegan?’
The salesman shook his head. ‘No. But I’m interested.’
The proprietor relented slightly. ‘Hash browns, Quorn sausage, mushrooms, toast, baked beans, tomatoes.’
The salesman nodded vigorously. ‘Yes, I’d like that very much.’
‘But you’re not vegan?’
‘No. I’m sorry.’
The proprietor gave a single nod and headed for the kitchen, from whence a lot of banging soon began to emanate.
On his return, I ordered the non-vegan breakfast for fear of being asked to provide some sort of certificate confirming my cruelty-free credentials. Tucking in, I took a sip of my orange juice and felt something sharp drag across my lip. Inspecting the random Scooby Doo tumbler the juice had been served in I noticed a quarter inch chip broken from the rim. Slightly put out that I’d narrowly escaped having my face ripped in half I raised a friendly eyebrow at the hotelier when he came with more toast. I proffered the glass and asked him to swap it. He looked at the glass with warm nostalgia and said cheerily, ‘Ah, yes. Quite old this one. Had it ages.’ I half expected him to shake his head, smile ruefully and say, ‘Hasn’t lasted badly considering it came free with a gallon of four star.’ He retreated to the kitchen with it. Through the doorway I saw him place it carefully on a shelf. For some minutes he gazed tenderly at it, as if thinking the tumbler would be as right as rain given a bit of sellotape and some TLC.
I started my itinerary at the National Media Museum. This could comfortably take up a day given proper attention. I saved time by skipping most of the telly-related bits. I saw a caption saying that the average UK adult watches 9 years of TV in a lifetime, of which 300 days is adverts, and felt that was as much as I needed to know.
As well as the main elements of the museum the building also houses the only working Cinerama screen in the UK, and the Cubby Broccoli cinema. You have to hand it to Cubby Broccoli for having the cojones to tough it out in the harsh world of showbiz with two ludicrous names for the price of one. There’s surely a tacit recognition of this in the fact that the cinema uses both his surname and his forename, unlike for instance the Priestley theatre nearby. The thought of a night out at the Broccoli cinema can’t help but involve a certain amount of juvenile sniggering, not to mention potential disappointment for brassica fanciers.
You never hear of anybody else with the surname Broccoli. Perhaps all the others have chickened out by deed poll, losers in a war of attrition, beaten by the phone ringing white hot every night with mischievous callers. Lightweights! I’d point them to the example of a punter I met when working for a London local authority. Mr Anus brought in some Council Tax documents to be photocopied. I took two copies; one for his records and one to take down the pub. I recognised it as a sign of encroaching burn-out that the main satisfaction I took in the job at that stage was in spotting curious names among the clientele; including the excellently named Mary Mary, who, frustratingly was reasonably co-operative.

My next stop was Saltaire, a village established by local mill owner Titus Salt. The old mill now houses an art gallery, which was slightly swamped by a lot of posho housewares shops. I went for their exhibition of David Hockney paintings and drawings. I didn’t see them at their best as I was still breaking in some new specs at the time. I’d bought them on the Internet for £17.50 including post and packing, and they were already proving a bit of a false economy as they gave everything a queasy visual wooziness not unlike the beginnings of a bad acid experience.
Hockney's stuff was disappointing. I think his style’s been ripped off by so many purveyors of slightly arty greetings cards, that his own work suffers from the comparison. Looking at it was a bit like reading Edgar Allan Poe after first reading Stephen King.
There were photos of Hockney dotted around the gallery. He’d been on the radio not long before ranting about the forthcoming ban on public smoking in the UK. He came across as an arrogant blowhard, so I was heartened to see that in the photos of him at work he apparently had the humility to be shown deep in child-like concentration, with his tongue protruding slightly from the corner of his mouth. Then I noticed he was like this in all the photos. Perhaps he’s had some sort of stroke. Probably all the smoking.
I took the bus back into the city. Years ago a friend who’d just moved to Deptford from Bradford sang the city’s praises as a conspicuously friendly place. Nobody had told the bus driver. I stepped aboard with my one day bus pass in one hand and a cheese and onion pasty in the other. He pointed to them in turn. ‘Number one, that tickets no good on these buses, number two you can’t eat that on here.’
There was just time to visit the Colour Museum before it closed. Rushed as I was I found it hard to engage with the exhibits. It all felt a bit like doing my Science homework on the bus, but as usual I found out one useful thing for future pub quizzes so it wasn’t a wasted trip. I now know why, given a choice of colours in test conditions people are least likely to sample food dyed blue.
With thoughts turning to food I ducked into the Old Bank pub on Market Street. It was a niche pub for blokes who’d been barred from the Goose and Granite round the corner for making the place look depressing. All the meals were £2.50, but I decided against eating as the woman behind the bar seemed vaguely scrofulous. Ordinarily I wouldn’t turn my nose up at those sort of prices. In fact it’s fair to say that I went to Bradford for the Media museum but fell in love with the prices. On Godwin Street there was a barber doing haircuts for £3. The cheapest haircut I’ve seen in London runs out at £5 a pop, and believe me I’ve done extensive research. That’s a saving of £2 which was exactly my fare on National Express, ergo if I time my next visit for when I need a haircut I’ll effectively be travelling halfway across the country for sweet nothing.
Bradford's certainly worthy of a return visit. My desire to return wasn’t dampened by the pall that fell on me later in the evening. In another pub I was struck by a sense of half-remembering some kind of anniversary or milestone. It dawned on me that it was twenty years to the day that I had moved in to the housing co-op where I live. The realisation almost buckled the legs under me. I remembered my feeling on moving in, that my luck was turning and that I was on the up. I had plans, many of which haven’t so much gone on the back burner as fallen down the back of the cooker. Twenty years on I'm still living on the same street, minus most of that early optimism. Transience is so common now, that it’s easy for some people to believe that their lives are progressing through recognisable phases. As for me, I’ve seen the face reflected back at me in the door’s glass panel at the entrance to my flats ageing down the years. I could only marvel at my capacity for standing still, and I couldn’t help thinking of that scene in the film The General, where Buster Keaton’s face barely registers surprise as a house falls down around him. That’s me, that is.

Sunday, 13 August 2006

Newport. 11th August 2006.

I rolled into South Wales under louring skies. The weather suited the place somehow, as if grey was the default colour for the local landscape. I knew Newport was my sort of town as soon as I stepped off the coach. The first two shops within view of the bus station were a Poundstretcher and an Oxfam. It’s sometimes reassuring to know certain universals hold true in most places. The Oxfam was, as ever, frankly overpriced and the familiar scrupulous vigilance over shoplifting was in evidence. A sign in the window said, ‘Due to thefts we are only putting one shoe on display. Please ask at the counter for the second shoe.’ I resisted the temptation to hop inside with one leg tucked out of view just to see the look of panic on the faces of the staff, and headed instead for the town gallery and museum.
The museum was better than most of its type and size, and featured a temporary exhibition on the Home Front in Newport. I seem to have an endless appetite for stuff about the Home Front. Maybe it’s my age. It’s perhaps hard for people to appreciate if they didn’t actually live through it, but in the UK it was just after the War until at least 1979. As well as the powdered egg ephemera and the like, there were excellent sketches by local artist Stanley C Lewis. More of these were featured in the gallery, which impressed me by actually having a specifically local flavour. It’s amazing how each artist can find something new to see in a valley pit village.
They like their art round here. The leaflet I picked up from the tourist office, which gave all the information you could want about local attractions apart from their addresses, also listed the public art in the town. Public art usually proves to be a euphemism for statues that don’t look like anything but some of these were great. I particularly liked the one commemorating the Chartists who smashed up the Westgate Hotel, and the one dedicated to WH Davies, local vagrant author and self-styled Supertramp. There’s evidently some sort of statute of limitations that comes into play when local authorities erect commemorative sculpture, leave it long enough you get a statue for activities that’d probably be rewarded with an ASBO in the here and now.
That morning I’d woken with a cold and almost hadn’t bothered with the trip. I’d gloomily thought, see one municipal art gallery you’ve seen them all, but what got me out of bed was the thought of unknown charity shops. My gumption was rewarded on Commercial Street, where the Red Cross shop was having a clearance sale with everything at a pound. The shop was run with brisk efficiency by three tiny older women who could have passed for sisters, or pieces of the same freakish chess set. I listened in as I waited to pay. They reminded me of an observation once made to me that as you get further north the Welsh accent makes its speaker sound incredibly angry whatever they’re saying. I was just thinking I was far too far south for this to apply when I overheard one say to the other, ‘If she speaks to me like that again, I’ll hit her.’ She was probably joshing but I had half a mind to hang around and find out; how often do you get to see pensioners having a proper stand up scrap?
I headed for the Streets, a local history centre towards the docks. The nearby Londis was signposted at regular intervals for about a mile before you reached it, but the history centre seemed intent on keeping itself a secret. I eventually found the converted chapel that housed it and stepped into the gloom. I entered via the themed Quiet Woman’s Row café. The only person there was the woman who staffed it. It seemed a crushingly solitary job, like being a lighthouse keeper without the aura of romance and adventure. Behind her desk was a notice-board for forthcoming events, among which were regular ‘Tea and Telly’ sessions, where punters drop in for a cup of tea and to watch an old film on the TV of a Tuesday afternoon. I quite liked the sound of it, but even I thought it a bit of a stretch to class it as an event.
The café area aimed to recreate an old dockland’s street, but the displays had let themselves go a bit. The only reliable way I could tell if some of the side rooms were exhibits or storage areas was if there were blue plastic chairs stacked in there. Some displays replicated local shops since departed, but if the exhibits represented their stock accurately, it’s no surprise they went out of business. Fading Vesta curry boxes from the Seventies sat alongside Edwardian tobacco tins and plastic toys from the Eighties. The centre advertised itself as a learning resource for local schools, but this could have only usefully stood as a dire warning to business studies students about the dangers of poor stock control. The whole café area seemed as if somebody had gone through a car-boot sale sucking up everything they could with an industrial vacuum cleaner, then dumped the results here.
I reached a door which seemed to lead to the Streets museum proper. A sign stated there was an admission charge of £2. There was also apparently a £1 charge to view the café area I’d just been in, for those not eating. I reasoned that if the Streets was twice as good as the café, I could safely save myself £2. I mumbled my excuses and made my way outside, avoiding eye contact with the quiet woman as I went.
I had a better time at Newport’s transporter bridge, a bit further down the road. It’s a great gangly structure that manages to look both daft and impressive at the same time. One of only six in the world still working, the transporter bridge shuttles people and cars across the river in a gondola like a supersized shopping basket, suspended from cables. The bridge wasn’t operating due to repairs, but the helpful, enthusiastic assistant in the small visitor centre made up for it. She gave me a rundown of the history of the bridge as if she’d just found about it herself and was still excited. She got me to crank the working model of the transporter, then she put on a video about the bridge.
Watching the video and listening to the soothing tones of its voiceover, it struck me how much our impressions of groups of people are shaped by our first contact with them. My first contact with the Welsh was in my early twenties when I worked for a chain of DIY stores. When stores were revamped we would often be dispatched as extra labour to various corners of Wales and the South West. And of the bunch of us holed up in those cheap B and Bs in Torquay and Pontypridd and Exeter, the Welshmen always seemed the most intent on copping off on nights out. So for years I had a vague stereotype of the Welsh as hornier than the average Brit. But listening to the voiceover on the video I realised that actually this preconception was partly a response to the South Wales accent. There’s something in the well-modulated lilt of it that means that whatever’s being said, the speaker will sound thoughtful, intelligent, and a bit dirty.
I had a final wander before the coach. I think my ideal daytrip involves going somewhere that hasn’t quite got enough on offer to fill a full day. I’m somebody almost incapable of relaxation, and one of the few ways I can do it is to trick myself into a kind of enforced mooching about in places like Newport. For that reason, the town suited me, but there was more besides. There’s something self-deprecating and unpretentious about the place. It was there in the florist’s sign that said, ‘Are you in the shit? Say sorry with flowers.’ It was in the name of the local ale commemorating the landmark bridge, Piddle Under the Transporter. In the pub, I pointed to the pump handle and mumbled, ‘Pint of that please.’ When the barman breezily announced, ‘Pint of Piddle? Right you are,’ his face lit up like the novelty of the name still hadn’t worn off.
The coach driver on the return journey was the same gentle, kind and conscientious man who’d driven me up at 8 o’clock that morning. I just about got my head round the maths involved and concluded that either he works a straight thirteen hour day, or a split shift over the same length of time. Just as I was trying to decide which would be worse, he elevated my respect for him even more by a Tannoy announcement that endorsed my long held conviction that the instructions in coach toilets are completely mystifying. Patiently, he announced, ‘Whoever’s in the toilet, can I just point out the button for the hand-wash is the white square one. The red one you’re pressing is the panic alarm. My dashboard’s lit up like Christmas!’

Sunday, 30 July 2006

Manchester 27th July 2006.

If my visits are anything to go by, Mancunians are some of the friendliest people in the North, and frankly it does my head in. And overfriendliness central seems to be Urbis, the city’s museum of er... cities. There was a poetry reading advertised for the evening. I hadn’t gone especially for this but as I was there I thought I’d ask for details. I was met with blank faces. The barwoman walkie talkied to ask the manager. As it was a hot day I was offered a glass of water while I waited for an answer. When the manager arrived he offered profuse apologies for the cancellation of the event, despite my explanation that I was only passing anyway. Once he’d established I was on holiday, he probed me on where else I’d been and where I was from.
The conversation had long overrun the usual cut-off point I’d expect of an equivalent exchange in London, which would be much more along the lines, ‘It’s not on, you’ve been told, now piss off.’ The manager revealed he’d been to Greenwich the week before and had a friend in Deptford. By now I was sweating a bit, and was fervently hoping he wouldn’t press me for more precise details of where I live in case he might invite himself round the next time he was passing. Something of my terror obviously showed in my face as he eventually dropped the subject and allowed me to back away with the offer of a free drink ‘for my trouble’ ringing in my ears.
On the way back to my hostel I spotted a piercing shop on Oldham Street called Holier Than Thou, so on balance it wasn’t a bad day.

Morpeth 25th July 2006.

I booked the B and B in Morpeth by email so I probably shouldn’t have expected any different. When I arrived at the guest house and rang the doorbell there was no answer. Untypically, I had my ancient and canoe-sized mobile with me so I rang the accommodation.
The owner answered. ‘Where are you?’
‘I’m outside.’
There was a pause, and what I retrospectively convinced myself was the sound of someone looking out of a window. ‘No you’re not,’ he responded, with a definite hint of snottiness in his voice. He asked the name of the guesthouse I was standing outside. I told him.
‘That explains it. That’s the other place we run.’
He directed me to the correct address. He was sulking when I got there and had a face on him like a smacked arse for the entirety of my stay.
Morpeth's an unspoilt small town without being self-consciously quaint, but a weekend there's plenty. I only really went to visit the Morpeth chantry which houses England's only bagpipe museum, an oddity that fully earns its mention in that Bible of strangely English days out, Bollocks to Alton Towers.
Bagpipes are the musical equivalent of Marmite; you either love them or hate them. I can't remember when I fell in love with them, although I do remember that a pipes rendition of Amazing Grace did trouble the Top Twenty when I was clearly at a formative age. Additional to my soft spot for bagpipes in general, I'm particularly keen on a regional variant, the Northumbrian small pipes. I stumbled across them through the work of Kathryn Tickell, whose first album I bought on cassette and played until it snapped. The Northumbrian small pipes are less in your face than the Scottish pipes, with a reedier sound, like a Stylophone having an asthma attack; lovely. They also seem to often be played in slightly odd, lopsided time signatures, like marching music for people who trip over a lot.
There's a curious mismatch between the high-tech presentation style of the museum and the folksiness of its subject matter. On entering you’re issued with a set of Lieutenant Uhuru style headphones. Each exhibit has a transmitter which relays a commentary and samples of the sounds of the different pipes, which the headphones pick up. The reception wasn’t great so the experience was a bit like listening to a badly tuned radio. At any moment I expected the commentary to be interrupted by the controller from some local minicab firm. Despite the technical glitches I came away even keener on bagpipes. I also learnt that there’s an annual bagpipe festival held in St Chartier, France. That's my summer holiday sorted for the next few years, then.
On a solitary wander that evening I chanced on Morpeth’s other oddity. Down a side street, I passed an ordinary-looking terraced house bearing a brass plaque claiming it was an honorary consulate of Romania. I considered ringing the doorbell and finding out more, but decided to leave the mystery intact.

Tuesday, 25 July 2006

Carlisle 24th July 2006.

I had thirty minutes to kill at Piccadilly Manchester so popped into the Ian Allen bookshop. The shop caters for transport nuts of every stripe, from train-spotters to bus-fanciers and all points in between. It even had books at £12 a pop listing every bus operator in the UK with the make and registration of every vehicle in their fleets. Even my step-dad would raise an eyebrow at bus-spotting and that’s saying something. An abiding memory of my teens is regularly returning from a weekend getting out of my gourd with my peers, to a house flooded with the sound of his steam train LPs, played at ear-splitting volume. But each to their own, I suppose.
As trains and buses are to some, so charity shops are to me. Carlisle has plenty of the big hitters, mostly clustered around Bank Street, including an Oxfam where I found a book called ‘Firefighting for Boys’, from the 1930s – evidently a less Health and Safety obsessed era. But what puts a spring in my step is coming across chazzas I’ve not spotted before. On Botchergate I spotted three; the Samaritans, Cumbria Cerebral Palsy, and Eden Valley Hospice. Cumbria Cerebral Palsy were selling a telly for £8. It was labelled ‘Telly, £8’, presumably in case anybody mistook it for a teak effect microwave.
On the same street were two branches of Wetherspoon’s, seven doors apart. I suspect the planning department let this go by because they were otherwise preoccupied by some high-concept mind-game they seem to be having with the shopping public. On Lowther Street they’d allowed the siting of a furniture shop called the Living Room directly opposite a café called the Dining Room. I imagine them going home from the office the day they pulled that off, announcing with a sinister smirk, ‘Guess what I did at work today, dear.’
Carlisle’s got a lot to recommend it. Prices are cheap; bed and breakfasts start around £20 per night, the charity shops sell shirts around £2, jeans for about £3. Fats, a bar on Paternoster Row, which had the leather-sofa-tastic décor beloved of a lot of trendy London bars, only charged £1.70 for lager and happily, wasn't thronged with tossers.
There's enough to see to justify a couple of days stay. The Tullie House gallery and museum had an excellent visiting exhibition on the ground floor, and the Old Tullie House had some nice William Morris related stuff. Both had free admission. Carlisle also has about the only millennium related bit of public art that doesn't make me goroan inwardly. The Carlisle Millennium underpass is far more interesting than it sounds, but then I suppose it would be. Strange engineering artefacts and a sculpture inscribed in Middle English made it one of the best underpasses I’ve ever walked through, by some margin.
Less impressive was Carlisle castle. A minicab driver once complained to me that with babies and circuses, you've seen one you've seen them all. I'm like that with castles. My advice is, find one that’s cheap to get into and commit the details of what you see to memory. Or get a book out of the library with some pictures.

Saturday, 1 July 2006

Belgium. 25th to 30th June 2006.

Two days prior to leaving for Belgium I got dumped. I was heading for the flatlands right enough. As a result my memories of the journey to Brussels are sketchy. Looking at my notebook, the entry for that first day consists of the words ‘gas off, windows shut, taps off, curtains drawn’. Each line had a tick against it.
I do remember fighting a losing battle with the chemical toilet on the coach. They can put someone on the moon but adequate sanitation on coaches seems beyond the wit of man. I tried all the buttons but this just produced a frightening whirring sound and dimmed the lights slightly. Mood lighting struck me as unnecessary. The black typhoid consomme sloshing round in the bowl went nowhere. There weren’t even the usual instructional diagrams. These usually consist of a man in a trilby urinating standing up, with a large cross through the picture. Presumably this means men should sit down to piss, and not that they should remove their hats before doing so.
My other memory is of feeling gloomy in the ferry's tacky bar. These places are glum on a good day; like Wetherspoons on water with the associated mix of faded middle-aged men, the long-term sick and a few badly behaved teenagers. I sat reading ‘Watching the English,’ by Kate Fox until a passing reference to a selfish and neglectful lover made me wince like I’d been kicked in the shins. I had a similar experience a few days later in a Brussels toilet where I was confronted with a piece of graffiti baldly stating, ‘I failed’. When other people’s love lives hit the skids they over-identify with soppy pop songs, I do the same with anthropology books and graffiti. I don't hold out much hope for me.
Despite myself I decided to stick to my planned itinerary rather than just get drunk for five days. I checked into the Brussels hostel and went to explore the neighbourhood. One of the guidebooks I’d read described it as ‘not very salubrious’ and advised taking a cab after dark. This immediately struck me as nonsense. The area had a significant Muslim population and seemed very family orientated; there was more of a cross-section of age groups out on the evening streets than I’ve ever seen in English cities.
There was a strange concentration of launderettes and barbers for such a small area. I couldn't work out if the two things were related. My only theory was that the locals couldn’t afford their own washing machines because they’d spent all their money on haircuts, but I hardly even convinced myself.
I returned to the hostel for an early night. My room mates were a cosmopolitan bunch judging by the fact that throughout the night they were taking phone calls from every time zone imaginable. I began developing a sense of grievance which marinaded nicely throughout the rest of the holiday.
I stoked it further the next day when I discovered that the instructions for using my all Belgium rail pass were only in French, Dutch and German, although I’d bought it from a UK company. I navigated the resulting difficulties by acting thick and staying polite, which seems to work for most situations.
Things weren't improved by the realisation that Belgium’s closed on a Monday. All of Antwerp’s museums were shut for the day, so I walked for ages looking for a local park that has over 300 pieces of sculpture on display, including some by Henry Moore. Lost, I asked directions in a private gallery. The assistant was pointing me in roughly the direction I expected when the gallery owner, gangly in a Jason King moustache, decided to throw in his two euros worth. He insisted the park was in fact two tram rides and a fifteen minute walk away. I gave up on the park, having decided I’d just met the man who put the twerp in Antwerp.
The next day I stayed in Brussels. In the morning I harrumphed around the Museum of Modern Art, disgruntled because most of the Magritte stuff was in storage. Then I visited a brewing museum. The museum, a working brewery, specialised in lambic beers, which have been made the same way for hundreds of years. Judging by the free tasting at the end of the tour, after all these centuries they still haven't got the hang of it.
Each sample tasted like a first attempt at home-brewing that had turned to vinegar. I backed towards the door with an apologetic wave, my face crumpled in disgust. The attendant asked me, with a hurt look if I’d like some more. I shook my head and strode briskly away.
I’ve got an odd fascination with people like these brewers, who just don’t know when to give up. There was a shoe repair shop opposite New Cross station for at least twenty years. I’ve only seen somebody go in there once. A woman happened to snap the heel off her shoe as she was passing. I’ll never forget the look of spooked delight on her face when she looked round and spotted the repair shop. I didn’t have the front to follow her in so I could witness the look of spooked delight on the face of the shop’s owner.
If Jim Davidson's to be believed , (a terrifying idea, I know), Belgium is boring. I don't think that's true, but I did think that for a major city Brussels was light on nightlife. I lucked in and was there the week of one of the few live gigs the city had lined up for months.
Pretty Girls Make Graves, a sort of Goth Blondie from the American Mid-West, were playing at the Botanical Gardens. They were performing in the Rotonde, a name which pleased me, as if the gardens had a separate area for fat people.
In fact the Rotonde was a tall, dark cylindrical room. It was a bit like going to a gig in a gasometer, without the novelty value of actually doing that. The room’s peculiar shape and acoustics meant the music was ear-bleedingly loud, but still managed to sound like it was being relayed through two cocoa tins with string stretched between them.
Plastic Bertrand, of ‘Ca Plane Pour Moi’ infamy, was Belgian. He seems indicative of the Belgians’ relationship with rock music; they’re enthusiastic about it, but they don’t quite get it. The well-scrubbed audience actually clapped along with the band. I haven’t seen this at a gig since going to Butlin’s as a kid.
The resulting un-rock and roll atmosphere was heightened by the frankly workman-like approach of the band. You can tell a band’s reached a certain level in the business when their set comes in at precisely sixty minutes, to the second. About ten minutes shy of clocking-off time the bassist announced, ‘We were going to make this the last song but we’re having such a good time we’d like to play a few more for you.’ If he’d been Pinocchio someone in the front row would have been going home minus an eye. Sure enough, those few spontaneous extra songs took the time round to bang-on an hour.
Naïve as it might be, stuff like that disheartens me. I feel the same when I see bands crediting their accountants on their album sleeves. Perhaps I’m old-fashioned.

The next day I played a sort of rail-pass roulette where I just jumped on the next available train to anywhere. The first anywhere was Ostend. Coastal towns in the low countries have a very specific feel. There’s none of the melancholy vulgarity of English seaside towns, but instead the sedate feel of suburbia-on-sea. Ostend was alive, if that’s the word, with well turned out pensioners, like a slightly more chic Eastbourne.
Worth a look is the church of St Peter and St Paul, roughly opposite the rail station. It has breathtaking Technicolor stained glass windows. Unusually, some of them were quite abstract, as if someone had made them from a kit and lost the instructions. Outside were parked row upon row of custom motorbikes. A handful of huge hairy bikers were milling around alongside. Their club colours indicated that they were from Cleveland, Ohio. I’d have asked them how and why they’d ended up there and why if I could have found one of them that didn’t look like he routinely bit the heads off babies for a bit of a lark.
Next stop was Bruges. It’s incredibly picturesque and the place is mobbed by tourists, despite an all-pervading smell of sewage. As I stood at a junction a tanker lorry pulled alongside and the smell worsened. It occurred to me that, as a means to limit visitor numbers, the town authorities might be shipping in the smell of crap.
I retreated into the Groningen Museum. It featured lots of work by the Flemish Primitives. Paintings from that period often bore me, but these were intriguing. They were incredibly detailed but the perspective employed gave them an odd childlike quality. Their work was very bound by formal convention and religious symbolism, so when Hieronymus Bosch emerged from the same group I can only assume they thought he was as mad as a box of frogs.
For the first time, I used one of those audio commentary handsets that make it seem like art galleries are full of people who haven’t traded in their mobile phones since 1989. It definitely added something to my understanding of the artworks. The downside was that the process of using it was like trying to get through to a call centre; press 6 to hear about the Primitives’ use of perspective, press 7 to pay your gas bill by direct debit.

On my last night in Brussels I went to an evening of low-budget short films at the aptly named Chez Toit. I knew I was in for a night of seriously arty film from the fact that in the programme the length of each film was given in feet. I’ve never understood this, as if people might phone the cinema and say, ‘Sorry, I’m running late and can’t get there until 9, can you tell me what happens in the first 12 yards?’
It was clear on arrival that the Shoreditch Bohemian bozo look has now gone international. I’m not sure how this crowd managed to pull it off as Belgium is a stranger to the concept of second-hand clothes shopping. Only that afternoon I’d been reading an article in a local magazine trumpeting the opening of the city’s first Oxfam shop, complete with a novice's guide to the concept of charity shops.
I have an uncomfortable ambivalence about the artier, more esoteric end of the cultural scene. On the one hand I quite like what you might call the product, but some of the people that you have to rub shoulders with to access it make me want to demand the return of national service. This evening had the advantage over an equivalent event in, say, Hoxton, in that I couldn’t understand a word anybody around me was saying.
The films were the usual mix on offer at these nights. There were the slick ones that were clearly intended as calling cards for their career-minded creators, who’ll probably secure future success directing terribly clever car commercials. And there were the plain weird ones, whose creators may well die mad and alone in an attic somewhere, but hey, what price self-respect?
As I was leaving, one of the filmmakers was throwing a tantrum, apparently because his film had been shunted down the running order. I didn’t understand anything he said, but I got the general idea. Some things are the same in any language.

Monday, 22 May 2006

Southampton. 19th May 2006.

The Lonely Planet guide to England has it about right; ‘Frankly, there isn’t much to see or do in Southampton.’
It’s the only place except Milton Keynes where I didn’t see anybody selling the Big Issue. It says something about both places; not only does nobody in their right mind want to set up home there, nobody even wants to be homeless there. Norwich, in contrast practically had a Big Issue vendor on every corner.
If a town’s desirability’s directly proportionate to the number of Big Issue sellers, then the charity could be sat on a fundraising goldmine. All they need to do is form an elite flying squad of vendors which can be sent into towns in return for a modest bung from local estate agents keen to hike up property prices. The property market gets a boost, the charity raises cash, the vendors get a few weekends away in decent B and Bs across small-town England, everybody’s happy.

You can develop a tolerance for museums, especially if you’ve been caning it like I have lately. The Museum of Archaeology reminded me that I’d been overdoing it a bit. I couldn’t look at the Bronze and Iron Age exhibits without glazing over immediately. I can’t get interested in artefacts relating to people that I couldn’t imagine having a conversation with, which pretty much rules out anything pre-capitalist, I think. The museum was mainly interesting for the building it was in which was part of the old city wall, and for the chance to eavesdrop on the two attendants who passed the time with analysis of the love-lives of their friends. I could’ve happily listened in all day.
Highlight of the trip was the city art gallery, which had a cracking selection of modern art. This was easily one of the best municipal galleries I’ve seen. In the comments book nobody had a bad word to say about the place, not even the person who complained that the security guard was really staring at them. I was inclined to dismiss the comments as paranoid ravings, but sure enough, a few minutes later I noticed the guard glaring intently at a man near the Camden Town group paintings. However, to be fair, the punter did seem to be standing so close to the painting that he might start licking it at any moment.

Saturday, 13 May 2006

Exeter. 12th May 2006.

To get to Exeter I used Megatrain for the first time. The terms and conditions said I must travel in the designated Megatrain carriage. I fully expected it to have straw on the floor and the slight whiff of cattle about it; at £2.50 for a day-return you can hardly expect luxury. As it turned out, the carriage was perfectly normal and so, apparently, were the people in it. The thought that most of the people sat nearby had probably paid a full fare of around £22 filled me with an exhilaration that, frankly, I struggled to contain. It was all I could manage not to run up and down the aisle waving my ticket in the faces of other travellers. But I resisted; there’s little more undignified than a tight-arse triumphant.
I’m used to coach travel, so I savoured the distinct pleasures of the train; not least of these being the chance to walk around, and hence delay slightly my inevitable demise from deep vein thrombosis. There was also the treat of getting a view of places you don’t see from the road. Back gardens intrigue me in particular. There’s something intimate about looking into them, like catching sight of somebody through a window in an unguarded moment. Passing through Honiton it seemed every other garden had a trampoline in it. They seemed mournful somehow, as if they were evidence of an increasingly solitary world, where children bounce alone. When I was growing up there would have been one child in the neighbourhood with a trampoline, and the rest of us would have pretended to like him so we could have a go on it. Those were the days.
I think I’d been primed for this nostalgic turn of mind by the sight of all the allotments the train passed. On train journeys as a child, I’m sure men working on their plots used to stop and wave at passing trains. Or was that The Railway Children? I considered inititating the waving action at the allotmenteers that I passed, but as I’m on a three year waiting list for a plot myself, I was more inclined to wave an envious fit at them.

On arrival, I made my usual trawl of local charity shops. They were mostly clustered on Sidwell Street, a fact which I hoped might have led to a fierce price war, but I suspect the PDSA and British Heart Foundation shops had some sort of price fixing agreement going on. Evenso, I managed to buy a Pierre Cardin shirt for £2 in the nearby Cancer Research shop. A bargain still even if the designer name was wasted on me; I used to think Mr Byrite was a real person.

True to form, a lot of the places I planned to visit were closed. Of what was open, a highlight was the Royal Albert Memorial Museum. It had a visiting exhibition of slightly obvious photography by Nick Danziger, which must have been more interesting than it seemed at the time because only after I’d looked round it did I notice there was a huge stuffed giraffe in the middle of the room. Upstairs was a display of toys down the ages, including a yellow wigwam exactly like the one I used to have, and a Spacehopper exactly like the one everyone used to have. As if my earlier bout of nostalgia hadn’t made me feel ancient enough, the explanatory notes for the wigwam made it sound like a relic from the Middle Ages.

Less enthralling was a show of slapdash lithographs by TV comic Vic Reeves at a gallery by the Quay. The prints had ‘I’m too famous to make an effort,’ written all over them. I thought of writing, ‘He’s a celebrity, get me out of here,’ in the comments book, but it only occurred to me the next day on the way to work.

On Fore Street I spotted a chipshop called Mr Chips. It was too much of a temptation. The owner was friendly but frail. He looked like Corporal Godfrey off Dad’s Army which somehow only added to the mounting guilt I felt at what I was about to do. Finally, after some minutes’ wait, my food was ready. I paid, and as I left said, ‘Goodbye, Mr Chips.’ Either he didn't hear me, or he was used to this sort of thing. Either way, I didn’t get the vinegar bottle in the back of the head that I was expecting. The chips were undercooked and a queasy shade of yellow. I suspect Mr Chips gets a lot of passing trade from smart-arses but not much repeat business. I considered topping the afternoon off by waltzing into a pet shop and asking the man behind the counter whether he had fat balls but decided to pace myself.

On the journey back, the megatrain seats were marked with reservation slips bearing the company logo of a fat bus inspector. At the seat I first chose somebody had written the word wanker across the hatband of the fat inspector. I moved in case I got blamed. The screaming obviousness of the fact that I was in the cheap seats felt uncomfortably like the practice at my brother's old secondary school of making the kids who got free school-dinners sit at a separate table. This was presumably to give other kids useful pointers about who to pick on and why. My fellow travellers with non-megatrain tickets clearly didn’t go to the same school as they didn’t all corner me and start chanting, ‘Your dad’s a tramp!’

Friday, 7 April 2006

Norwich. 6th April 2006.

If scenery is difference, variety, then the flatlands of Norfolk hardly even count as scenery. But I liked that, found it strangely peaceful. On the way to Norwich, the coach passed a designated natural woodland burial site. I quite fancy being disposed of that way.
Death seems more like something to do with me these days. Lately I’ve developed something like the opposite of a nesting instinct, clearing stuff out of my flat and decluttering, as if I'm preparing for departure. I just hope my subconscious doesn't know something I don’t, and is telling me to get ready to leave with a clear desk because I’m riddled with some hideous terminal illness.
I didn’t have high hopes for Norwich. I associated it with Alan Partridge and a woeful 70s TV gameshow called Sale of the Century which was broadcast from there. But I was wrong. Of the first five shops I saw on leaving the bus station, two were charity shops and one was a branch of Poundland; my kind of town! And it actually felt like a place; hadn’t been Subwayed to death, or turned itself into a twee Merchant Ivory theme park.
Opposite the brushed steel eyesore of the Millennium library I stumbled on the church of St Peter Mancroft. Peter Mancroft seemed an unlikely name for a saint, and more like the name of somebody you were at school with, or some forgettable regional TV presenter.
I actually quite like churches, apart from all that nonsense about God. I realise this attitude's contradictory and makes me sound like my mum, who once claimed she liked Songs of Praise apart from all the singing.
There was a fantastic stained glass window above the business end of the church which is well worth a look if you’re passing. Stained glass windows seemed to be quite the thing locally as even the Salvation Army shop I went in had one. It seemed to depict a punch-up between two drunks on the High Street. This struck me as quite a breath of fresh air given that gritty realism isn’t something I associate with stained glass as an art form.
Later, walking back to the bus station, I passed a shop devoted entirely to mustard – more specifically the famous local brand, Colman’s mustard. You have to think that when a shop becomes that narrowly specialised it's in danger of going the way of the Giant Panda, but it seemed to be thriving. I vaguely remember the young woman who inherited the Colman’s mustard millions in the late 70s. The tabloids made a lot of the story, presenting the heiress as a bit of a rebellious, hard-drinking punk rocker. I wonder how she’s getting on. I hope she found something good to do with the money.

Thursday, 6 April 2006

Milton Keynes. 5th April 2006.

It’s easy to take the piss out of Milton Keynes, but that’s no reason not to. I’d never actually stopped there before but about twenty years ago I passed through its outskirts on the way to Milton Keynes Bowl. It struck me then as like a motorway service area that had become malignant and spread.
Someone I knew who grew up nearby said the trouble with Milton Keynes is that there’s no 'there' there. As I walked the windy boulevards I had a burning urge to approach strangers and ask, ‘Where is everything?’
Nobody will ever set a film in Milton Keynes; why bother? It's like England with all the good bits taken out. It’s the type of place young parents move to, only to have their children hate them for it when they grow up. It’s the only English town I’ve been to where I didn’t see a single Big Issue seller. I still haven’t worked out what that signifies.
It’s like Swindon, only on purpose. And it’s the on purpose bit that amazes me. Milton Keynes was planned to be this way and when it was conceived was heralded as the future of how English towns would be. And now, by accident rather than design, much of the rest of country has followed suit with its blank, bland dedication to shopping and only shopping.
The more places like Milton Keynes I see, the more I feel an irrelevance, an anachronism, the more I feel there’s not much space in the world for me. But then, would I want to belong in a place like this? Round the back of Iceland, there was horse shit in the road. I suppose even the most sterile places can still take you very slightly by surprise.

Sunday, 2 April 2006

Amsterdam. 24th to 30th March 2006.

It’s odd that I don’t have more to write about Amsterdam. Maybe I just wanted to concentrate on having a PROPER BLOODY HOLIDAY, because in the endless hours of the coach journey I made some depressing calculations. I worked out that since I left school in 1979 I’ve had a total of eight weeks holiday. Obviously, I’ve had more time off work than that, but in terms of actually going away, that’s it; eight poxy weeks. And a week’s worth of that was made up of long weekends.
I never really got into the holiday habit. We didn’t have regular holidays when I was a kid. Mostly we went and stayed with relatives. The only actual proper paid-for holidays we went on were a couple of weeks at Butlin’s, and a week in a B and B in Bournemouth soon after my mum got the all clear from a bout of cancer. So the part of my brain that ought to tell me I need a holiday never really developed. This is probably part and parcel of a chronically underdeveloped sense of entitlement I’ve got, which I’m sure has held me back in many ways over the years.
I’m an anxious traveller, particularly abroad, I now realise. In the UK I can position myself, can feel I’m in context. Abroad, I feel strangely unplaced.
My anxiety was worsened by the fact that I found Amsterdam incredibly easy to get lost in. I'm sure it’s not just me – the narrow streets look very similar and are laid out like a spider’s web, so it’s hard to retain a sense of direction. I found myself repeatedly walking past a fleapit called Miranda Sex Cinema. I wondered if it had any connection to the Goth band Miranda Sex Garden, but the thought had stopped amusing me by the twelfth time I went past the same spot.
In the eight years since I was last there, the centre of Amsterdam seems to have been converted into a theme park for drugs bores. The area round Centraal Station was swarming with Brits and Americans loudly intent on getting mashed to oblivion in the coffeeshops, and only that. If you've seen the schlock horror movie Hostel you'll recognise the phenomenon, identified by one of the characters when he asks, ‘Is there actually anyone Dutch in Amsterdam?’
In my teens, people into drugs tended to be misfits who weren’t hard enough to be herberts, but weren’t bright enough to be geeks. If Amsterdam’s anything to go by there now seems to be a breed of pot-jocks, muscleheads who aren’t noticeably different in attitude to the sort of bloke who prides himself on how many pints of lager he can neck. I met a prime example in one of the hostels I stayed at. Waving a map of the city’s coffee-shops he said, ‘Me and my mate are just going to update this – they’ve missed off some of the best places.’ I resisted the obvious response; ‘Lend me your mobile, I’ll phone and tell someone who gives a fuck.’

If you’re main interest in life isn’t getting cabbaged there’s less to do of an evening in Amsterdam than you might expect. I was struck by how little was going on in terms of live music. Some of the more interesting stuff to do happens in a number of squatted social centres in the city. One of the biggest is Academie OT301, which used to be a film archive. I went to a zine sale and a film showing there – both were well attended and well organised. Smaller, but worth a visit is the squat at Plantage Doklaan 8, (tram 14 or 7) which has occasional film screenings and music nights. Also worth a visit is the anarchist bookshop Het Fort Van Sjakoo at 24 Jodenbreestraat.

Tuesday, 28 February 2006

Cheltenham. 25th Feb 2006

At Heathrow, two Canadians got on the coach and sat directly behind us. I don't think their mothers had ever told them about when to use their ‘indoors’ voices. After about an hour of their braying I wanted to burst my own eardrums. National Express sometimes provides earphones ostensibly to allow you to listen to the onboard TV, but they're probably really meant for times like this. Both Canucks were evidently quite successful in some branch of corporate IT and were so thoroughly and tediously immersed in business culture that I began to take a renewed pride in my own failure to understand the word career as anything other than a verb.
There was a clear dynamic between the pair. The less successful of the two managed to find endlessly varied ways of agreeing with the other, a skill that I’m sure hasn’t harmed his advancement in the corporate world. I was reminded of a group of middle managers I once saw on a train in Lewisham. The most popular of the group was a man who spent all his time apparently nodding his gushing agreement to everything anybody said. It took me some time to realise that he actually had some sort of tic.
The slightly superior Canadian rang his office to say he would be back in time for a mid-morning meeting on Monday, so this was evidently a weekend trip. It seemed an awful lot of CO2 emissions to produce for a weekend in the country. Perhaps they knew something about Cheltenham I didn’t and still don’t.

Cheltenham is like Bath without the cultural pretensions – like a thick, posh rugby playing brother to its more literary sibling. Legend has it, it's the only posh town in southern England Jane Austen never lived in. Not all its olde-worldiness was an unalloyed delight – I was travelling with my other half, who, single-handed, brought the headcount of black people in the town up into double figures. This caused some curiosity among the locals – either that or somebody had announced a staring competition just before we arrived.
Other aspects of the place were old fashioned in a more endearing way. We stumbled across an old-school electrical shop called something suitably no-nonsense like Cheltenham Electrical, down a terraced backstreet away from the prevailing chintz and poshness. Pride of place in the window was taken by the first two-bar fire I’d seen since about 1979; yours for a very reasonable £17. It gave me a strange thrill of reassurance - I'd assumed those things had gone the way of the Spacehopper and the three-day-week. E was sent into a reverie, remembering long-gone afternoons skiving off school and whiling the time away by flicking bogies onto the bars of her mum’s electric fire to watch them sizzle. She wondered now at the way the fire’s elements never seemed to last long. I suggested they might have been shorted out by her snot, feigning more technical knowledge than I can honestly lay claim to. I felt the shop’s days were probably numbered. For posterity, I took a photo of it from the pavement. From behind the counter, the proprietor and his assistant, both in cardigans, looked back at me listlessly, like two men waiting for the end.

To my dismay E had balked at taking a punt on an unknown local B and B. She insisted we stay at the Cheltenham Travelodge. I caved in, but on the day my subconscious revolted and tried to sabotage the plan by making me forget to take a note of the address. I had a vague recollection that the hotel was near the racecourse so we took the bus there. After twenty minutes whimpering in a freezing gale and fruitlessly asking strangers for directions, we headed back into town. The first cabbie on the rank advised us there were three Travelodges in the area. Three of the buggers!
We took a lucky guess at which was ours. The reception was large, draughty, brightly lit and tiled in beige, like a big gent’s toilet. I wouldn't have been surprised if it automatically self- cleaned between arrivals.
A mate of mine used to complain that Tom Jones delivers lyrics as if he doesn’t know what the words mean. The teenage receptionist had a similar affliction. It was as if she was so bored that language had lost all meaning.
She strung whole sentences together as if they were single words from some obscure dialect; like canitakethemoneyforthepaymentnowplease, which took me three attempts to decipher. I get impatient with travel writing that harps on about poor service – it always strikes me as a bit snooty and mean-spirited, so I’ll cut her some slack and assume some of her brusqueness was fallout from the raging hormones everybody suffers at seventeen. We later saw her boyfriend arrive to collect her at the end of her shift – she seemed a lot more human off duty. Of course, it might have been she just didn’t like the look of us. Certainly when I completed the registration form and admitted that we’d arrived by public transport, an odd mix of incomprehension and mistrust swept across her face. When I handed over my debit card I thought she was going to test its validity by biting it like a bartender in a silent film.

The hallways of the hotel were like a cross between a student halls of residence and a recently tarted-up open prison. I won't bother describing our room as, according to the company's brochure, it'd be identical to every other Travelodge room of the same grade and size. What the brochure doesn’t show you is how impossibly soft the beds are. My guess is that this is a deliberate tactic to render sex impractical, thus reducing complaints about noise. The brochure's also silent on the company’s stinginess with coffee; to whit, one sachet per guest.
I later took matters into my own hands, having noticed that the door of the cleaner’s cupboard was left ajar. While E stood lookout I sneaked in and liberated some extra sachets of coffee and sugar from the cleaner’s trolley. Back in our room, bad coffee never tasted so good. In the morning, on the floor outside our room, somebody had placed a copy of the novel, Lucky You, by Carl Hiaasen. For a paranoid moment I wondered if this was some sort of coded warning from hotel security that they were wise to my coffee thieving, but I pushed the thought from my mind.

When we asked the new teenager on reception if he had any leaflets on local attractions he pointed us to a rack containing nothing but Travelodge leaflets, so we made our own plans. We visited the birthplace of Holst. It bored me, except for the servant’s quarters, a room the size of a phonebox at the top of the house. This apparently was an improvement on the arrangements common a few years before, where staff slept either in the kitchen or under the stairs. Perhaps that’s what was meant by below stairs staff.
Our next destination was to be some ornamental gardens with an impressive domed Georgian building as their centrepiece. I asked the driver of the hopper bus to let us know when we reached the nearest stop. He obviously thought we wanted to go the pretty way. I watched with a sinking feeling as a likely looking green-domed building receded in the back window. A helpful woman suggested that if we stayed on long enough the bus would loop back round to the same spot. As the bus took forty minutes meandering through what felt like most of Gloucestershire, we sank into a glum, gormless silence broken only when there was an unexplained stop for fifteen minutes by a graveyard.
‘There’s a lot of people buried there,’ E observed.
‘That’s cemeteries for you,’ I muttered.
On the return leg of the journey, ten minutes after the gardens had closed, the driver looked over his shoulder and breezily announced our destination. I thanked him as we alighted but the sarcasm I did it with seemed to just ricochet clean off him.