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.