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.