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 I drank the lot; as the tubs of UHT milk were all out of date I felt entitled.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.