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.