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!’